Reservni deli has inevitably been described dismissively as "bleak." William Martin explores how the film's ironic historical and social setting make this everyday story of people smuggling something more.
Many of the films shown at this year's Berlinale dealt in some way with frontiers, border crossings and refugees. Of them, the Slovenian film Reservni deli (Spare Parts, 2003), directed by Damjan Kožole, stood out for its realist treatment of this highly topical issue, one I imagine most visitors to the Berlinale have little occasion to think about, though it occurs everywhere and almost invisibly. People smuggling is a phenomenon experienced in its Slovenian context alone by some 150,000 people a year, according to Kožole, who in his director's statement extrapolates that figure from the 36,000 illegal immigrants apprehended annually by Slovenian border guards.
The film's title refers to what happens to many of those lucky enough to make it past the guards and into the promised land (Europe): they are killed and their organs sold for many times the amount they themselves each paid to be freighted in. The issue is compelling: it immediately raises questions about what it means to live within a polity the borders of which can generate such barbarism and in a global order where the factor of citizenship in the production of power relations is increasingly magnified and enforced. Slovenia's position on this map of relations is not insignificant; within a year the country's frontiers will have undergone a sea-change, and it will be on the receiving end of the horde of the huddled and weary, not just a stop en route.
Despite the unambiguity of Slovenia's recent vote for inclusion in the European Union, Reservni deli portrays a society ambivalent about this new transformation, not only explicitly, in the characters' rancorous commentary, but metaphorically as well, through its depiction of the hopes and fears of the clandestine populaces of "Africans, Kurds, Albanians, Chinese, Pakistanis, Macedonians," et al that transit Slovenia subliminally each day.
Reservni deli has been criticized for focussing its attention on the "smuggler backstory" rather than on the "plight of the unfortunates." Not only is that not true (the most emotionally intense moments in the film occur in regard to such plight), but it also ignores the film's exploration of the complex relationship between perpetrators and victims, an exploration that Kozole sets up with his exceptional screenplay and that is conducted through a multinational cast and crew, particularly notable for the strong acting, camera work and the excellent editing (by Croatian Andrija Zafranović, who worked on three of Kusturica's early films).
A criminal fringe
In Kožole's previous production, the comedy Porno Film (2000), a Slovenian window-dresser and his friends decide to make the "first authentically Slovenian porn film" and in doing so get caught up in a nefarious underworld of Russian prostitutes, their traffickers and escaped convicts. In his second film, Remington (1988), another escaped convict and his girlfriend, attempting to flee Yugoslavia for America, get stuck waiting for the ferry to Italy, the police hot on their trail. Like them, Reservni deli depicts down-and-out characters on the fringes of a criminal underworld, and like them it explores tropes of escape and captivity. But it also marks a conscious departure from those films in its gravity and its documentary specificity (according to an interview with Kožole, many of the situations in the film were based on newspaper reports), as well as in its exploration of formal and generic possibilities.
Against the background of people smuggling on the frontiers of the EU at the beginning of the 21st century, Kožole deftly narrates in Reservni deli the story of an unlikely friendship between two losers: Ludvik Zajc (played by Peter Musevski, familiar from his role in Jan Cvitkovič's Kruh in mleko / Bread and Milk, 2001), a middle-aged smuggler and former motorcycle racing champion confronting his impending death from cancer, and Rudi (Aljoša Kovačič), a younger, novice smuggler attempting to assimilate to his new role. Clustered in the interstices of their twined destinies are episodes portraying the men's contrasting responses to interactions with their illegal charges, Zajc's reminiscences of his deceased wife, and Rudi's awkward courtship, and more awkward repudiation (when she tells him she's pregnant, most likely by him), of the otherwise girlfriend of the current local racing champion.
Their conversations, either in the cab of the van or in a local bar following a night's work, also serve to illustrate their differences while introducing other topical material into the film: Zajc, a relic of the old Yugoslavia, frequently rails against the evils of globalization and the EU, while Rudi, a complacent anyman of the new Slovenia, learns quickly to placate his excitable companion by parrotting him.
Multiple histories, one town
The film is prefaced with two brief scenes that situate it geographically in Krško, an industrial town near Slovenia's border with Croatia, and historically in terms of two durées, one Yugoslavian and one independent-Slovenian. The first scene is of documentary footage showing Marshall Tito and his wife inaugurating a nuclear power plant in Krško, sometime in the 1970s. The other is a documentary-like sequence (the yellow tint matches the Tito footage) from a national motorcycle racing championship finale from the early 1990s. If you listen closely (while reading the subtitles!), you'll hear the sportscaster announcing the winner as Zajc.
This then segues almost seamlessly into another championship race, set in 2002, the story's present, where we meet the somewhat haggard, middle-aged Zajc himself (played by Peter Musevski) standing in the bleachers, beer in hand, watching the race, and young Rudi (Aljoša Kovačič), who approaches him, sent by the boss as his new assistant. (There is also a third timeline in the film, one that begins with Rudi and arcs beyond the end of the story, but is not as important for a discussion of the background).
Krško, according to Kožole, is rather atypical for towns "on the sunny side of the alps," and its unique attractions appear to have been the inspiration for the screenplay: "When you think about Krško, you do not think about a historical city center with unique architecture, but about the nuclear power plant, the cellulose industry, and the speedway." Clearly, Krško won't be joining the EU with the same kind of cultural capital that Ljubljana, or a seaside village like Portorož, or an alpine resort like Bled will bring with it. What it does have, aside from the above-mentioned attractions, is a history as a factory town in a workers' state; depressed, industrial and unlovely Krško couldn't be more apt as a space for exploring the country's ambivalences about the future.
Possibly more significant, though it's obviously hard to qualify such things, is the fact that Kožole grew up there; and I imagine the subdued urgency, straightfaced irony, and remarkable care with which the film was produced attest to this personal investment. But the story's formal precision, the objectivity and reserve of the narration, its management of ambivalences and emotional energies, the film's subtle use of secondary hues and modulations of color, and its extremely fine editing, all bespeak as well an artistic disinterestedness that is rare.
The story's two background histories are embodied, literally, in Zajc. We're never told how he got from being a national motorcycle racing champion to driving a van smuggling illegal immigrants across the country, but judging from his vitriol toward various signs of westernization (McDonald's, the EU, etc.), presumably it is a narrative that many viewers won't need to be reminded of. The other durée, that of the Yugoslavian nuclear power plant and the effects it continues to have on Krško's inhabitants, is manifested in Zajc's cancer and indicated explicitly in comments made by Rudi. When Zajc tells him how he and his wife Gisela both got cancer at the same time, and that whereas she succumbed he survived it through urine therapy (generally Zajc's body commands a lot of the film's attention), Rudi puts the nearby nuclear facility at fault, remarking on how much cancer there is in the area.
Zajc's feeble denial ("There's not much more than elsewhere") plays like the b-side of his nostalgia elsewhere in the film for the old days: "Did you know Ludvik Zajc won the all-Yugoslavian school dance competition in 1977 in Tuzla?" (Zajc often refers to himself in the third-person), "Did you know Ludvik Zajc used to be a test-smoker for cigarette companies? Three cartons a month they'd send me," etc. The ongoing legacy of the nuclear power plant is explored in other ways in the film, also visually. One of the film's more bleakly ironic moments is a shot of an outdoor swimming pool next to the plant, the reactor's chimneys looming in the background, children's heads bobbing up and down as they swim laps in the foreground.
The ethics of irony
Neither of Reservni deli's two protagonists is particularly likeable. Zajc is a self-aggrandizing, flatulent has-been who in the first smuggling scene is shown instigating the prostitution of a young Macedonian woman, which leads to her boyfriend's rejection of her and, as we learn from a television news report, her probable suicide. After the mid-point of the narrative, however, when he discovers that his cancer is no longer in remission, Zajc begins to show a modicum of compassion, expressing skepticism toward a colleague that the cargo of immigrants being concealed in an oil rig could possibly reach London alive, or sympathetically returning to the Kurdish mother the 500-euro transport fee for her swaddled infant upon learning that the child is dead.
Rudi, on the other hand, is shown coming of age as a schmuck, jettisoning his previous set of values as he seeks acceptance from his friend and mentor and, as Zajc's cancer becomes more critical, gradually succeeding him. In the final scene, which brings the story full circle, Rudi is shown watching another championship race from the racetrack bleachers when he, just like Zajc at the beginning of the film, is approached by a fresh-faced innocent, his new assistant, a version of himself a year earlier.
While viewers are hardly likely to identify positively with Zajc or Rudi, the film itself resists providing any kind of ready judgment of the two protagonists, though the irony deployed throughout the story would seem damning enough: in Zajc's downfall from national racing champion to a driver of illegal aliens; in Rudi's inability to comprehend that Angela (Aleksandra Balmazovič) really isn't interested in him beyond their one-night stand; or in instances of grotesque equivalence, such as when Ilinka, the propositioned Macedonian girl (Verica Nedeska), is given not only the medicine to relieve her ailing boyfriend but EUR 50 per violation by the smugglers—exactly the amount they had just extorted from the other, famished immigrants for pizza.
While the script depends quite a bit on such peripeties, they are never ostentatious. Thoroughly understated, the film likewise manages to avoid triteness and unwarranted manipulation of spectator emotions. When the surface of ambivalence does get broken and an emotional response appears necessary, it is at moments when human dignity has been accosted and demolished: when Ilinka, lost in the woods at the Italian frontier, breaks down and out of shame refuses to answer her boyfriend's calls for her; or when a Sudanese father, mother, and child, moments earlier shown full of hope for their future, are found suffocated in the trunk of the Ljubljana smugglers' car.
Just as Zajc's and Rudi's characters are presented without explicit judgment, the immigrants, too, are not without demonstrable failings: Zajc learns of the Kurdish woman's dead infant only when the older Albanian man in the same transport informs on her, offering him EUR 500 to remove the apparently fetid corpse. The irony here is that Zajc, preoccupied with his own mortality, proves himself (slightly) more humane than we'd come to expect.
Smuggling in humor with the bleakness
Every time Reservni deli comes close to being humorous it ends up describing an absence of redemption. Even the scene when Zajc drinks his own piss, as homeopathic therapy for the cancer, evokes merely indifference, in spite of the sense one has that one should be chuckling, if only uncomfortably (or maybe it's just me; at any rate, I was busy wondering why he was wearing a t-shirt with Polish flags all over it). His frequent farting, to Rudi's restrained annoyance, is a trope that in another film or situation comedy could have had audiences in stitches, but here it comes across as sad, symptomatic of nothing more than Zajc's vulgarity, or his wrecked insides.
"Terse and unsparingly bleak," is the Variety reviewer's short description of Reservni deli. "Bleak" is the single-word verdict of The Movie Times. But despite the awful circumstances of the illegal immigrants and Zajc's cancer, surely it's not all bleak? After all, in the final scene, following a narrative caesura of months, Rudi walks away from paying his last respects at Zajc's grave with a woman at his side—apparently he's finally found the girlfriend he'd been searching for.
In many ways, in fact, the narrative of Reservni deli adheres to one principle of comedy: that the order of things remain, more or less, as it was. But probably the response to this film is predicated by something else, which Felicitas Becker, in her report from the Berlinale in Kinoeye, pinpoints as the protagonists' outrageous nonchalance toward the illegal immigrants' plight. Many comedies are in fact highly serious (one has only to think of Aristophanes, who as one critic has put it, was obsessed with tragedy); and much great drama (like Chekhov) plays with elements of both comedy and tragedy, suspended in a kind of aesthetic emulsion. But what Kožole has done in Reservni deli, and I think this is what is so unsettling to viewers, is to place a sustained comedic plot alongside or atop a number of briefer, tragedic ones.
Ultimately, it is Ilinka herself who decides to take up the smugglers' proposition of sex for money plus antibiotics for her boyfriend. And it is the Sudanese father, anxious to get to the border as soon as possible, who commits the split-second hamartia, accepting the smugglers' offer to stow the whole family into the trunk of the car.
If those stories weren't there, if the criminal and topical elements were removed and Zajc and Rudi worked, say, as truckers, what would this film be? A buddy story about a man dying of cancer caused by a nuclear power plant, and about his younger friend who survives him, who won't die of cancer because he knows nuclear power plants are dangerous, etc., and not only that, but who gets the girl, a girl, in the end. Basically, it would be a potted allegory about the bad history of Yugoslavia and the much-wiser present of independent Slovenia.
By incorporating the inherently tragic and very current reality of people smuggling into the narrative, Kozole has allowed this film to respond to another aspect of Slovenia's present and to its future. By juxtaposing two very different realities at excruciatingly close-range and on top of that to structure their relation in terms of the difference between comedy and tragedy (with possibly a third difference involved, if we take Zajc to be a quintessentially tragicomic figure), Kožole has made of this film a commentary on the more universal "human position" of suffering. True, Zajc and Rudi are more than just witnesses—and so much of the story is clearly about Rudi's development from concern to callousness; but the immigrants themselves do have agency. The film is certainly bleak, and no doubt it won't ever be coming to a multiplex near you. But that it raises and leaves open questions of judgement to its viewers is one of its strengths; that it does so with such narrative sophistication, and so modestly, is another.
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