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Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Euro 2012: Croatian Films

Entry #1 of the Euro 2012 Book & Film Spotlight looks at the two Croatian films.

Buick Riviera (2008, Goran Rusinovic)

Buick Riviera

Buick Riviera starts off in the snowy American mid-west when Hasan’s (Slavko Stimac) car breaks down in the middle of a deserted road. He is fortunate to get a lift from Vuko (Leon Lucev). The two exchange jokes and things are quite pleasant especially after they discover they are both from the former Yugoslavia. However, Vuko’s constants remarks about Muslim behavior anger Hasan and he counters with observations regarding Vuko’s Serb identity. Immediately, hatred and distrust flare up. Hasan heads home and things appear to have ended. But Vuko shows up at Hasan’s door, determined to buy Hasan’s beloved car, the Buick Riviera. The car then becomes a battleground as the two men try to assert control over the other. Hasan needs to preserve his car while Vuko wants it at all costs. Watching the duo’s confrontation with confusion is Hasan’s American wife, Angela (Aimee Klein), who does not understand the historical context of the men’s argument. Still, her character is essential because she serves as a moderator who oversees a critical scene in Hasan’s and Vuko’s verbal battle at the dinner table. In this scene, Angela is seated at the head of the table, equidistant from Hasan and Vuko who are across from each other. However, the camera’s perspective is nicely altered in certain moments to make it look like Angela is sitting closer to Vuko thereby portraying Hasan’s inner feelings where he feels he is on the verge of losing both his car and his wife. But just as he feels things slipping from his hands, memories of bloodshed in his former land come to Hasan’s mind and he is determined to fight back harder.

Goran Rusinovic’s brilliant film illustrates how hatred can persist through generations and lay dormant until one day it is unleashed in a full fledged war. On the surface, the film appears to be about two strangers whose chance encounter leads to volatile consequences but it is clear that the film is about more than just two people. The two characters’ situation gives us one example of how hatred can suddenly flare up out of a seemingly harmless situation and result in bloody revenge. In this regard, the film provides an answer to the question of why fighting broke out in the former Yugoslavia or why most cultures/tribes are in a race to destroy each other. A simple answer can be that people just don’t like each other. However, when this answer is probed further, then one uncovers that sometimes causal gestures results in people’s dislike towards. For example, an unreturned smile can immediately label someone as an enemy. And sometimes, a nice smile can cause distrust. Add all these little things up and you build a catalogue of distrust and hatred, which if left to brew and ferment over centuries can eventually lead to horrific consequences.

Buick Riviera is essential viewing and one of the most relevant films to have emerged in the last few years. Unfortunately, it is also a film that is hardly known outside of a tiny film festival circuit.

The Blacks (2009, Goran Devic, Zvonimir Juric)


The Blacks opens with a shot of a cat quietly feeding its young one while ominous music hints at the plunge into darkness that awaits. The significance of the opening shot is hinted at later on in the film when the cat is seen wandering the hall alone but not before some blood has been shed. After the opening shot, we observe men sitting in the back of a truck silently holding their guns. The men are headed for a secret mission but they need to stop for some food and supplies. When their leader encounters closed shops, he smashes a shop window and grabs some bananas. The leader is not a thief and duly leaves some money just inside the smashed window. The men eventually reach a forest where their mission begins. However, Ivo (Ivo Gregurevic) leads his men in circles and after 2 hours, they end up back at the same spot where they started from. The men are frustrated at the lack of instructions or information about the mission. Tensions flare up and twenty minutes into the film, 3 men are dead, with 2 shot and one committing suicide. The rest of the film examines how and why the men were assembled and what their mission was.

The directors, Goran Devic and Zvonimir Juric, have made an excellent decision to squeeze out as much color as possible from each frame. The end result is a grey/darkish palette which befits the men’s mission that is not authorized and falls in a grey area between right and wrong. Information about the mission is provided to audience in snippets of overheard conversation or phone calls but it is clear that the men’s mission is not authorized at the highest level. The men’s mission appears to take place in a tense moment right after war when technically a ceasefire should have put a stop to all covert operations. However, in reality, as the film shows for some people the war machine cannot come to an abrupt halt. As a result, some operations continue to be carried out in the shadows and then subsequent operations are needed to perform cleanup and retrieve evidence of those initial unauthorized operations.

The Blacks manages to use silence effectively to depict the internal struggle the men are facing and only uses violence when the men reach a breaking point and cannot carry their burden anymore. The film covers a lot of ground in its brisk 75 minute length that still leaves some room for audience to fill in their own interpretation of events.

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