Yugoslavia – 80 Medals
There are a few interesting cinematic stories regarding Josip Broz Tito, the Yugoslavian statesman, of the extreme dictator variety. A cinephile by nature, he often displayed his affection for the art in quite madcap ways, much like his fellow dictator Kim Jong Il. For instance, supposedly, he hired the entire Yugoslavian navy out as extras, part of a requirement for their national service. The cinematic comparisons with Kim Jong Il however, don’t end there. Because as much as he was a cinephile, Tito was also quite the communist. Leading to most of Yugoslavia’s film output to be of propagandist nature, up until his death in 1980 and even beyond.
Unfortunately, or fortunately, depending on your viewpoint, Yugoslavia does not exist anymore, due to conflicts amongst many of its regions, which saw the country broken up into independent countries in the early 1990s. The break up was anything but peaceful, with many wars fought during the periods of independence. But as it stands now, the country was split into: Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia and the debate still rages on with Kosovo. It seems that the break-up of Yugoslavia is not a topic well represented within any of their national cinemas. Perhaps it is too soon. Or perhaps maybe it is too close to home. Instead, its cinema seems to focus more upon WWII and Yugoslavia’s involvement in it. At the present time, Serbia has become the dominant cinema for the fractured former Yugoslavia; just don’t expect the brutal and disgusting ‘A Serbian Film’ to make the medals. The honour for that film is doping and a lifetime ban.
Bronze – The Marathon Family (Slobodan Sijan, 1982)
Considered a cult film in Yugoslavia, The Marathon Family is the only film on the podium to have genuinely come from the original nation. Much like the films that will gain Gold and Silver, dark comedy is what permeates the screen. Focusing on a pre-WWII family of undertakers, in a small Yugoslavian township, the Toplavic family have been undertaking for 6 generations. When the youngest son Mirko, decides that he does not want to be a part of the family business, the argumentative family obviously take great offence. Particularly when they discover that Mirko instead, only shows interest for a local girl, Kristina.
Kristina is the daughter of Bili Piton, a local delinquent, who helps the family cheat overheads by recycling old coffins and selling them as new. When the family refuses to pay Bili, all hell breaks loose, and murder doesn’t just become a supplement for their business, it becomes a choice for the family. Extremely dark, you can see why this has cult status in its native land. It is a Yugoslavia meets Six Feet Under match, with hilarious results. Normally it would have got the gold, but the fact of the matter is, the film is extremely hard to get hold of. Which is a great shame, because as Yugoslavian cinema goes, it is a great example of the dark comedy that is prominent in its cinematic history.
Silver – Black Cat, White Cat (Emir Kusturica, 1998)
With Underground, Kusturica began to display a comedy which could be defined as ‘circus comedy’. A type of comedy which teeters on the realms of reality, with an ability to embrace surreal farce. While Underground flirted around a very historical backdrop, Black Cat, White Cat, instead chooses to focus upon the extremely farcical. When Matko, the ‘idiot’ of the piece, is tricked out of a petrol train heist by gangster Dadan, he convinces him that even in his failure, he still owes him money. Matko plans to repay the debt he has been fooled into believing he owes, by marrying his son, Zare, to Dadan’s midget daughter, Afrodita.
There is a problem however, in that Zare is actually infatuated with Ida, a young waitress. In the ensuing chaos of the rather forced shotgun wedding, all manner of things go wrong. With unexpected deaths in the family, the wedding continues onwards and upwards becoming more and more absurd at every available turn. The film is ridiculous, it’s stupid, but most of all it is incredibly funny. Weirdly however, it has a sentimentality to it which seeps through the absurdity to give the film an added charm. Given that after the harsh reception Underground got in his native land, Kusturica semi-retired, eventually returning to direct Black Cat, White Cat. Thankfully he did, because his talent shines through in a comedy which may be one of the greatest foreign language comedies of all time.
Gold – Underground (Emir Kusturica, 1995)
Films such as Underground are few and far between. A film spanning over 3 time periods, whilst following its two main characters Marko and Blacky throughout, Underground is somehow both absurdly funny and emotionally challenging. The first section of the film begins in Belgrade during WWII. Our two protagonists Marko and Blacky, head home after a heavy night of drinking. Marko takes home a prostitute, while Blacky goes home to his pregnant wife. When the Nazi bombs start falling, both have differing reactions which are equally as funny.
As the friends become more and more embroiled in the war, their relationship as a consequence becomes quite surreal and fractured. Kusturica jumps the story forward by many years for the second section of the narrative. With Blacky injured in the war, he is unaware that the war has actually ended, with the fall of Nazism. Instead of informing him, Marko keeps Blacky underground, finding more and more absurd ways of lying to him about the status of the war above for his own personal gain. The allegory is strong from Kusturica. The relationship of Blacky and Marko, whom were once friends, slowly rots away from the inside, much like Yugoslavia’s own historical relationship problems. Once friends, their relationship suffers from the interference of others, leading to falsehoods, deceptions and ultimately death. As if it wasn’t obvious enough, Kusturica spells it out for us in the script, with a line near the films end: ‘There is no war until a brother kills a brother’. A political allegory of much importance, Underground is bizarre, yet extremely important at the same time.