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VENICE FILM FESTIVAL
Slovene film makes a splash at the Lido
Jan Cvitkovič's Kruh in mleko
(Bread and Milk, 2001)
After a lack of domestic interest, Kruh in mleko went on to scoop a major prize at Venice. Brian J Požun explores what the success means to Slovene culture.
No one would have thought it. After all, the film is barely more than an hour long. It was shot in black-and-white. It was the director's first film. And on top of everything, just this March it played at the Slovenian Film Festival, and was barely noticed at award time. Yet, against the odds, it has become the most important Slovene film in decades.
The Venice Film Festival, currently in its 58th year, is the world's oldest and is as important as the ones in Cannes or Berlin. It usually concentrates on films from countries with powerful lobbies and extensive film productions: for a small country like Slovenia, with no such lobby and meager national production, the festival was virtually out of reach. Indeed, the last Slovene film to play the Venice festival was almost 40 years ago—Jože Gale's Srečno, Kekec! (Good Luck, Kekec!, 1963), a children's film, in 1965.
But early this summer, the news came from Venice that Jan Cvitkovič's first feature film, Kruh in mleko (Bread and Milk, aka Black and White, 2001), had been selected to participate. Although the film was put into the low-prestige "New Territories" section, the fact that it had been selected at all was already cause for celebration in Slovenia.
In its coverage, the media mentioned that, as one of 18 films by first-time directors at the Festival, Kruh in mleko would be eligible for the Golden Lion of the Future award almost as an afterthought. It was more than enough that the film had been chosen to participate in the festival; no one thought for a second that it could win.
The Venice Film Festival opened on 29 August and ran through to 8 September. Kruh in mleko was screened several times, on 2, 3 and 4 September. The first showing only filled half the theatre, but those who did come broke Venice tradition and stayed in their seats until the end of the closing credits. Critics quickly noted the film's quality and there were comments that it could have easily been put into competition for the Festival's top prize.
Director Jan Cvitkovič, lead actor Peter Musevski and producer Danijel Hočevar were all in attendance and gave a half-hour press conference after one of the screenings. Just a few days later, they would be giving yet another press conference: against all odds, Kruh in mleko had won the Golden Lion of the Future, the most important award any Slovene film has ever won and one of the biggest cultural achievements in Slovenia's ten short years of independence.
Testament to the significance of the win, President Milan Kučan sent along congratulations for the "great artistic success" and "extraordinary breakthrough into the elite film world."
Aside from the symbolic importance of the award, there is another, more practical, significance. The final budget of Kruh in mleko was about SIT 40,000,000 (USD 160,000). The Golden Lion of the Future award carried a cash prize of USD 100,000, as well as 20,000 meters of stock: virtually enough resources for another film.
The most Slovene film ever
Cvitkovič says he set out to make a very "Slovene" film, perhaps the most Slovene film ever. The film is a dark study of the effects alcoholism, which runs rampant in Slovenia, has on families; true to the Slovene spirit, the tale is fatalistic with no hope of a happy ending—certainly not the typical Hollywood fare.
The story revolves around a recovering alcoholic on his first night out of rehab. When he runs into an old school friend who claims to have slept with our hero's wife years before, he goes home and begins to drink again. Compounding the story, the man's son is a drug addict and his wife is socially alienated from small-town society.
Cvitkovič told the Slovene daily Delo that "bread and milk are the bare essentials a family needs for survival... despite the fact that the characters in the film have good intentions, things go wrong. I wanted to show that sometimes things happen for which no one is to blame. [This family] wants to be together, to be happy, but they make too many mistakes."
A challenge for the filmmaker and for the audience
Director Jan Cvitkovič, 35, holds a degree in archaeology. Kruh in mleko was his first shot as director, but he has been active in film for some time. Not only did he co-write the script for director Janez Burger's international hit V leru (Idle Running, 1998) but he starred in it as well. (V leru went on to receive more than 20 domestic and international awards.)
Kruh in mleko was produced by the same company as V leru, Vertigo/Emotion Films. Additional funding came from the Film Fund of the Republic of Slovenia. When Cvitkovič applied for funding from the Film Fund, it was for a twenty-minute short film. At the end of filming, he had more than 40 minutes—and instead of cutting it in half, Cvitkovič decided to expand the project. Ultimately, Kruh in mleko capped out at 68 minutes.
Its shortness is not the only thing that sets this production apart from most other feature films. It was also shot entirely in black and white: a tactic that has its risks, but Cvitkovič and his crew were up to the challenge. "We shot on color film and then reshot on black-and-white," Cvitkovič told Delo. "That way we got a gentle undefined black-and-white tone, not as sharp as if we had shot directly on black-and-white film." He continued:
Most times a black-and-white picture seems to me more real than one in color, which is interestingly absurd. Film color is not the same as in real life, and really color would have no function in this film.
The film has been praised for its inventive use of light; it has also been called "minimalist," for its low-key minimal scenery and sparse props. Shunning big-budget sets, gimmicks and special effects, the director was forced to rely heavily on the actors and their skills, a rarity in modern cinema the world over.
Shunned at home
Every year, the small Slovene film industry converges on the coastal resort town of Portorož for the annual Slovenian Film Festival. This year's festival ran from 28 to 31 March, and marked the world premier of Kruh in mleko. Predicting that audiences would not find the film engaging, organizers gave it an afternoon slot and reserved that evening's slot for the crowd-pleasing Yugo-nostalgic Sladke sanje (Sweet Dreams, 2001).
Kruh in mleko won none of the festival's major prizes. The only awards it won were bestowed upon its stars—Peter Musevski was named best actor, and Sonja Savić was named best supporting actor, taking home two of the four awards bestowed by Stop magazine
In the end, the only good thing that came out of the premier at Portorož was the fact that the Venice Film Festival had sent scouts who were impressed by Kruh in mleko.
The Slovene daily Dnevnik asked Cvitkovič what Venice saw in the film that Portorož did not see. He told them:
I think that, above all, the film awakens some sort of intense emotional state in the viewer. I also think that the film is made in such a way that it very accurately reveals the character of the people who are engaged in the story, their interpersonal relations, desires and yearnings. That was probably decisive. Our directness might also have convinced them—for example, in the film we did not use much scenery.
A breakthrough for Slovene Cinema
The win at Venice has already breathed new life into Slovene cinema. Kruh in mleko was shown at several international film festivals after Venice and has since been picked up by several more. The film was screened earlier this month in Toronto, and will also appear at festivals in Rotterdam and Pusan, South Korea. In the past, Slovene films were not given good slots at festivals, and this may be the first thing to change.
Cvitkovič told Delo "The promotion of Slovene film abroad is normally quite weak; since there is no unified front and everyone does their own thing, nothing is accomplished. Therefore, our films lose a lot for no good reason." But now that Kruh in mleko has put the country's cinematography back on the map, all that might change.
Producer Danijel Hočevar told Dnevnik:
This award means a better point of departure for all filmmakers in the future; the award also bears a significant cache and probably will also help in the development of Slovene film overall—but it is hard to predict how much. In any case, it will not hurt. Every thing contributes a small stone to the mosaic of new Slovene film and its recognition…The award is important that much more, since we are a country which does not have any sort of lobbying weight, since ours is a small, unknown cinema. The fact that the jury obviously voted based purely on quality is such an immense compliment to the film and at the same time stimulates Slovene cinematography, since it represents a promotion that we could not have achieved with [publicity] money.
Hail the conquering hero
Kruh in mleko is slated to hit theatres throughout Slovenia after opening the 12th Ljubljana Film Festival (LIFFe) on 22 November 2001. The film's team will surely enjoy the irony of appearing at the Ljubljana festival as the stars of the show after being snubbed at the country's other festival in Portorož just eight months earlier.
The problem is, if the domestic release of Kruh in mleko is withheld until late November, the film will be disqualified from competing for the Best Foreign-Language Academy Award in the United States: to be considered for that prestigious honor, the film will have had to be in regular distribution for a full week before 31 October 2001.
Brian J Požun
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