Gravehopping (2004 / Slovenia, Croatia / Jan Cvitkovic)
Slovenian Filmmakers are gathering a lot of awards in recent years, along with something that is much more important: international attention. Considering the fact that this small country with a little less than 2 million inhabitants produces an average of about three feature-films per year, it is somewhat remarkable that some of their films have garnered numerous prestigious awards at international festivals. But this phenomenon is not entirely new to the Slovenian filmmaking community. Long before the independence in 1990, when Slovenia was still part of the socialist republic of Yugoslavia, it had already achieved considerable success. Though similar to the Soviet Union, where a film from Georgia or Armenia was as much a Soviet Film as one from the Ukraine or Russia, films from the different countries in Yugoslavia, though easily recognizable to its inhabitants through different languages and cultural idiosyncrasies, were internationally regarded as a unity. When Yugoslavian cinema was at its creative peak in the late 60s and early 70s, garnering critical acclaim throughout the world, Slovenia was naturally a part of it. Thus, the most recent wave of recognition is not an entirely new experience for the young republic but rather something it has been waiting for since the seperation. Nevertheless one question remains, the question of quality. While Slovenia as part of Yugoslavia possessed filmmakers of international standing who are today still awaiting their international re-discovery, I am yet to encounter somebody as capable in today's cinematic landscape. And despite the acclaim Jan Cvitkovic and his latest film "Gravehopping" have achieved, with this film he surely isn't going to succeed the old masters. Quite the opposite.
While the story itself is rather simple, the subject matter is not. The problems adressed are not merely the everyday worries of the cast of people which are presented to us, but try to reflect the complexities of the current (Slovenian) society as a kind of seismograph of our times, similar to the structuring of the ensembles we can find in many sociocritical films of Robert Altman where the setup is also heading for a culmination. But Cvitkovic is no Robert Altman. Contrary to the statement of one of the characters it is even harder avoiding life than death. But that's exactly what Cvitkovic is doing most of the times. Avoiding any real examination of the presented conflicts, he opts for quick solutions and the in-your-face symbolism he uses to state his point too often feels forced and affected. Using references from dozens of cinematic classics and their respective filmmaker's techniques, he nevertheless doesn't yet seem to know the difference
between Quentin Tarantino and Paul Thomas Anderson, or rather their different stylistic approaches. Lacking any coherent style of his own (or at least I am hoping for the better and don't assume that the one presented is actually his own), what we get from Cvitkovic is a hodgepodge of undeveloped concepts and ideas which must have appeared very promising on paper, but would have needed a filmmaker with the talent of Kusturica himself to pull this off. Unfortunately Cvitkovic is also not Emir Kusturica, and I'm sad to say not even a second rate one.
The acting is at times so out of tune with the material that it comes close to parody, though that might be something that's hard to notice for a foreign audience that isn't familiar with the Slovenian language. The sad fact remains that in Slovenia you still don't have a seperate education in acting for films and most of the actors working in the filmindustry come from the theater. While this has been a problem in Slovenia since the beginning of filmmaking, other directors like Bostjan Hladnik in his 1961 classic "Dancing in the Rain", have been able to turn this handicap into an advantage through their handling of reality and fiction, the inner and the outer world of the characters, and most importantly through references to the artificiality of film itself. While Cvitkovic tries to achieve some of the same effects the expressive and theatrical acting often collides with the intended realism of the scenes themselves and the way they are filmed. What we get is not a heightened realism, but a sub par artificiality that clearly wasn't the aim. If I would be sarcastic, I'd say that Cvitkovic would have probably been better off filming himself talking about the film. But I doubt that Marguerite Duras' work is accessible to the cinephiles of today. Thus one can only presume the talent involved. Besides the editing which is fine throughout, giving the film a rhythm that serves as its pulse and makes it bearable to see it through till the end, the cinematographer seldom displays what he is capable of, but rather what he shouldn't have tried in the first place. One scene during the celebration after a burial remains the solitary exception. And the avoidance of any real conflict paired with a couple of bad CGI definitely leaves a bad aftertaste.
I was wondering if a scene in the film where a character is watching an Italian copy of the famous chariotrace-sequence from Ben-Hur (1959) on TV is maybe trying to tell us something about the film itself. If we are supposed to be watching the "trash" version instead of the original movie.
But if this is actually the case, Cvitkovic's problem would be that he takes the trash too seriously, pulling all the wrong punches in such a presentation of the material. And a poignant ending doesn't make for a poignant film. In the end, Cvitkovic doesn't know how to tell his story as he is getting caught up in the web he has spun for himself. The result resembles more the idea of a film dreamed up by a troubled teenager, than a reflective attempt of a mature individual who has gone through similar conflicts himself. Formally unmotivated outbursts of violence are paired with sentimental moments during family reunions that ring completely false. Trying to win a medal for originality and begging for attention as well as attempting to be aknowledged as a serious filmmaker, Cvitkovic is nevertheless constantly trying to please everybody and everyone, giving his film a slick appearance which can be witnessed in numerous co-productions from the European Union. The fossil Slovenian boards for the promotion of film will be satisfied. But every honest Slovenian cineaste who has still enough self-respect inside inside of him will have to aknowledge that the film is a failure in almost every respect. A benevolent reading of the film might reveal it as an ironic commentary on "European" progress in the eastern societies since their "liberation", though Cvitkovic sometimes doesn't seem to know if he is actually talking about Slovenia or merely using it as a pattern for the problems in all former Yugoslavian states.
In a country without any filmindustry of its own, Slovenian films need all the support und acknowledgement there is to survive further in this difficult business. But what they don't need is any form of self-deception or the pretending of being better than they actually are. I'm as eager as the next Slovenian for a new wave of filmmakers and ideas, but as far as I can see this is yet another attempt that is still in the process.