Kinoeye: New perspectives on European film

Vol 3
 Issue 10 
29 Sept
2003

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Poster for the 50th Pula Film Festival CROATIA
Looking outwards
The 50th Pula
Film Festival

Pula is a festival that—like Croatia as a whole—is trying to come to terms with the country's past. As Marina Malenić explains, as well as now being an international festival it played a retrospective of Yugoslav films this year and awarded a picture that confronts a difficult recent history.


The Croatian daily Večernji list billed Pula as the "festival that nobody cares about," presumably having in mind the increasingly fashionable, younger festival in nearby Motovun and Pula's slightly tainted reputation as an official, government-sponsored festival, not only during Communism but also in the nationalist Tuđman years of the 1990s, when the festival was devoted solely to Croatian cinema and organized from Zagreb and the international guests stayed away. Pula, now run locally and this year celebrating its 50th edition and its 3rd year of being an international festival, is anxious to shake off any lingering negative associations with nationalism and officialdom.

And it seems to be having some success: despite Večernji list's derisive comments, Pula drew record crowds this year. For exanple, 7000 film fans attended the opening night at the festival's most valuable asset, the Arena—the near perfectly preserved 2000-year-old Roman amphitheatre in which the competition screenings take place.

In addition, there was more serious international recognition than in recent years. Among the guests were John Malkovich, who helped publicize the festival with commercials for Croatian television, as well as Jeremy Irons, whose latest release, the Franco Zeffirelli production Callas Forever, which dramatizes the last days of the late opera star, was screened in the international program. It was an attempt to put on a Hollywood-style red carpet show, and even though it was not on a Hollywood scale, it was well received by the enthusiastic Croatian crowd.

Across the divide

The opening film, which directly followed an elaborate fireworks display, was Konjanik (The Horseman), a historical drama set in the mid-18th century. It served as an eloquent reminder of the complicated political and cultural divisions that are ever-present in the Balkans. In this case, the division is between the Ottoman and Venetian Empires, the latter of which encompassed the coastal regions of modern-day Croatia, including the festival venue itself.

Although the actors who play the star-crossed lovers (one Muslim, the other Christian, of course) are sympathetic, there is nothing particularly original about this Romeo and Juliet-style story or its telling by director Branko Ivanda. Nonetheless, the Arena audience ranked the film quite highly, no doubt responding to the two lead actors, the stunning location shooting throughout the Balkans and the timeless, archetypal nature of the story.

Over the following week, three film programs were offered at theaters throughout Pula and this year, ten European and American films were screened as part of the international program. In addition, nine new Croatian films competed for the Golden Arena awards presented by a panel of international judges. And this year's retrospective program showcased the best films screened in Pula during the past half-century, the first time since the war that the retrospective had taken a "Yugoslav" perspective.

Examining the past

Pula, located on the Istrian coast, escaped the ravages of the 1990s conflicts, both militarily but also in terms of the nationalism of the population (many Serbs lived in the laid-back region throughout the war without coming into danger). Nevertheless, the war and its legacy is something that continues to haunt Croatian society, with great debate over how those who committed atrocities in the name of Croatian independence should be treated—criminals or heroes. Compliance with the International Criminal Tribunal for Yugoslavia is a contentious issue. As well as haunting the Croatian psyche, the war and how to deal with its legacy, are also increasing appearing as themes in film, in contrast to the 1990s, when cinematic discussion of these issues was relatively muted in Croatia. (Serbia, by contrast, seems to be moving in the other direction, with less discussion of the war than there was in the 1990s.)

This year's Croatian competition was certainly evidence of this trend. Tu (Here), directed by Zrinko Ogresta and awarded the Golden Arena for Best Film (and notably the only film to receive applause at the press screenings), is a post-war drama depicting six mini-stories that at first seem completely unrelated. It's a dark film, like most of Ogresta's work, and the only insight we're given into the hopeless situations we witness is that sometimes granting false hope can be the cruelest trick of all.

In the end we notice that the intersecting slices of life in Tu are held together by a group of former soldiers who have semi-integrated back into everyday life in Croatia, but that normal life, in any true sense of the word, is still out of reach for most. The final scene, which depicts the lights going out in a house while the Croatian national anthem (which begins every newscast) sounds in the background may put too fine a point on it. But with a first-rate cast and direction, as well as meticulous cinematography, Tu is nontheless easily this year's best Croatian film.

The two other "war" films this year were Svjedoci (Witnesses), wihch won a number of Golden Arenas including Best Direction, and Milost mora (Mercy of the Sea), a Croatian-Israeli co-production. Svjedoci is based on the novel Ovce od gipsa (The Plaster Sheep) by Croatian journalist and occasional Kinoeye contributor Jurica Pavičić. The story consists of three views of the same incident—an investigation of an alleged war crime committedby Croatian soldiers against a Serbian family. The resulting three-dimensional perspective on the events makes for innovative story-telling by director Vinko Brešan, whose previously films include the international festival hits Kako je počeo rat na mom otoku (How the War Started on My Island, 1996) and Maršal (Marshal Tito's Spirit, 1999).

Milost mora, a Croatian-Israeli co-production, unfortunately does not rise to the same level. Since then he As a foreign co-production, the film was not in competition for the Golden Arena, but neither did it make a positive impression on either the Arena or press screening audience. Director Jakov Sedlar, something of a right-wing nationalist, here continues his collaboration with Martin Sheen, who has appeared in Sedlar's Catholic Gospa (1995) and narrated his documentary portrait of Franjo Tuđman (1997).

The story follows Ana, a war widow who lost not only her husband, but also her brother and son in Vukovar, scene of some of the most severe fighting and atrocities in Croatia. But the surreal narrative of Ana's search for her son—and her quest for peace with the past—is melodramatic and unsuccessful in conveying the sense of loss that all those who experienced front-line warfare must feel.

In addition to these films on show, Jeremy Irons also discussed a project still in production, Matilda, at a press conference. Directed by the young Croatian Nina Mimica (no relation to the celebrated Croatian director Vatroslav Mimica), Matilda tells the story of a United Nations peacekeeper—a colonel played by Irons—who finds the job, in Irons' words, "unsatisfactory, because you have little power and a lot is expected of you—not unlike a warder in a lunatic asylum."

Yugo-nostalgia

For most of its 50 years, the Pula festival has been a presentation of the best in Yugoslav feature film. This year's opening night festivites included a retrospecive montage of old Yugoslav classics and, interestingly enough, the most applasue was heard during clips of the Bosnian production Sjećaš se li Dolly Bell? (Do You Remember Dolly Bell?, 1981), as well as the Serbian comedy Ko to tamo peva? (Who's That Singing Over There?, 1980), directed by Slobodan Sijan.

Josip Broz Tito—who, like many dictators, had a passionate filmophilia— founded the festival and made it an international spectacle long before it was officially an international festival, inviting stars like Sophia Lauren, Sam Peckinpah, Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton—the last after the release of the Bosnian film Sutjeska (The Fifth Offensive, dir Stipe Delić, 1973), in which Burton portrayed Tito as a young Partisan officer in the waning days of the Second World War.

Although the high-budget Sutjeska was not shown in the retrospective program, another super-production set during the Second World War was screned—namely, Antun Vrdoljak's Kad čuješ zvona (When You Hear the Bells, 1969). Shot at the height of the Tito era, this Croatian-Serbian co-production portrays neighboring farmers of the three predominant religious persuasions present in the former Yugoslavia. They are unified by a common enemy—fascism—which erases their prejudices and makes them capable of fighting for the common good—an encapsulation of the "master narrative" which Tito used to hold the republic together, even long after the war.

In stark contrast to this highly ideological film, the prescient Ko to tamo peva? involves a cross-country ride on a rickety bus by a hodepodge of "Yugoslavs" that breaks into chaos, serving as an insightful (and sublimely ridiculous) metaphor for the former Yugoslavia.

But unlike Yugoslavia, somehow the Pula Film Festival went on, even without Tito. And this year the Croatian film community saw the continuity of a process of coming to terms with its past, first by acknowledging the legacy of Yugoslav feature film (Serbian directors first returned to the festival in two years ago), and then by examining its more recent history with an openness to differeing perpsectives. All this may well signal a new maturity in Croatian film if it can be sustained into the future.

Marina Malenić

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Also of interest
About the author

Marina Malenić is a television producer and journalist


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