Where the Olive Trees Grow

  • Praetorian Palace in Koper (Capodistria)
    Besides the questionable nature of the basic concept of national cinema itself, placing national cinemas in a wider context has always proven difficult. The kind of horizontal periodization of art and culture, which sees it as e.g. Central European, Balkan, Mediterranean, Nordic etc., has been generally outlined by old and new geopolitical divides as represented by drawings on the maps rendered by foreign offices and agencies (or least by UN agencies’ geoschemes). Thus we frequently hear about the cinema of the Balkans (meaning former Yugoslavia plus/minus Romania, Bulgaria and Albania, but almost never Greece), or (for a short period) about the cinema of the ”East-Central Europe” (Median Europe), while the concept of Central Europe as a cultural project more or less died with the inclusion of its countries into the European Union, because – as noticed by Maria Todorova in the foreword to the 2006 Serbian edition of her seminal work Imagining The Balkans – the concept of Central Europe lost its emancipatory appeal along with the demise of so-called Eastern Europe (i.e. socialist Europe).

    Still, we can say that we do believe there is a corpus of films traditionally called the cinema of Central Europe, although in recent decades its existence has hardly been widely claimed. The same goes for the possible existence of an entity called the cinema of the Mediterranean, which – unlike Central Europe – did not get its book in the Wallflower series 24 frames, which provides ”comprehensive overviews of national and regional cinemas from all over the world”.
    Gainsbourg (Vie héroïque)
    The Mediterranean cinema itself could be a broader term than the cinema of Southern Europe (which has hardly been in circulation at all) as it should include the cinemas of the Mediterranean and Sub-Mediterranean climatic zone – i.e. the countries of the Mediterranean Basin – including all North African countries (or the cinemas of Maghreb, but Maghreb does not include Egypt), Palestine, Israel, Lebanon, Jordan, and Syria. Yet, with the recent rise of possible cultural and economic (and thus also political) reaction to the northern, vertical power of Europe, the reaction embodied in the idea of the Mediterranean region (i.e. the Union for the Mediterranean), the idea of Mediterranean culture (which after all was the cradle of Western civilization) has resurfaced again, thus opening the way for the idea of a specific, idiosyncratic corpus of the Mediterranean cinema. But of course, this cinema has always been out there: from its canonical incarnation in Federico Fellini’s Amarcord, via the works of Pier Paolo Pasolini or Michelangelo Antonioni, or the brothers Taviani’s Kaos, to widely popular films such as Luc Besson’s Le grande bleu /The Big Blue/, Gabriele Salvatores’ Mediterraneo, or Giuseppe Tornatore’s Cinema Paradiso. What remains unanswered is what makes one film Mediterranean? As in the question what makes one film national, or indeed European? The technical answer to that question is that such film is (co-)produced in a country which has a coast on the Mediterranean Sea (or belongs to the Mediterranean Basin). It is delicate to culturally contextualize a film – and indeed, maybe the Mediterranean film is the one in which you can see olive trees.
    Metastaze /Metastases/
    The first festival of European and Mediterranean film held in the pleasant Slovenian coastal town of Koper (Capodistria) again showed the urgency of the aforementioned questions. In its first edition this festival was in search of a location and the right time (from an shopping mall in October, next year it will move to a nice, old-fashioned cinema in the old town, on the main square, and in May). But also – limited by distribution and the availability of films – it was in search for the concept. It did not betray the main criteria – the festival showcased films from Europe whose common characteristic was, well, that they were (co-)produced in European countries. The Mediterranean element was the hard nut. The Grand-Prix winner, Croatia’s Metastaze (/Metastases/ directed by Branko Schmidt and scripted by Ognjen Svilicic, otherwise the director-writer of Oprosti za kung fu /Sorry for Kung Fu/ and Armin) – with its Trainspotting-style approach to the disintegration of Croatia’s transitional society being the strongest film to come from that country in many years – was set in the working class neighbourhood of the capital city of Zagreb, which is of course Central Europe.

    Serbia’s Oscar nominee Besa, so far the best work of Srđan Karanovic, one of the most prominent directors of the ex-Yugoslav Prague Group, can be seen only as an excellent piece of so-called Balkan cinema. Not only because of its transnational (i.e. trans-former-Yugoslav) crew – it has a Slovenian actress (Iva Krajnc) and a Croatian director of photography (Slobodan Trninic, who was awarded with Grand Jury’s second award, for photography, named after the Slovene Vilko Filac), and co-producers from Slovenia and Croatia – but also because of its story and setting. The story takes place in a Serbian province back in 1914, and depicts already the then-existing national disagreements. With the Slovenian bride being left in the care of a middle-aged Albanian (Miki Manojlovic), after her young Serbian husband has been drafted, it shows the deep, indeed medieval origins of national xenophobia and distrust being rooted in cultural and religious differences (and of course strengthened by political interests of third parties). Although traditional in structure, the film’s main power lies in the depiction of the love affair which does not actually (i.e. physically) happen, only the hard fact which connects them was the rope which ties her to him, literally and symbolically.
    Artistically the bravest and strongest film at the festival – indeed, maybe the only actual work of art screened among the selected dozen films – was Gainsbourg (Vie héroïque), which won the FEDEORA critics’ prize. The unusual biopic is the first film by famed contemporary author of bande dessinée Joann Sfar, author of Le Chat du Rabbin /The Rabbi’s Cat/ and co-author of Donjon /Dungeon/ comic books, and maybe that is the best explanation of the film’s strongly felt unusual detour from the mainstream biopic genre. The film depicts the thin line between the outside and inner world, having its protagonist doubled: we see excellent Éric Elmosnino as Lucien Ginsburg, and his cartoonish alter ego Serge Gainsbourg. Although the film fades a little in the second half, when Lucien the painter becomes Serge the chansonnier (or in fact Ginsburg becomes Gainsbourg) and rejects – actually internalizes – his alter ego, previously represented as an equally real subject, in the closure it returns to its glory, suggesting that the roots of the whole story were on that very Proustian Normandy beach of Lucien’s childhood, where Lucien the boy is framed beside Ophélia Kolb, which models as the ideal feminine figure from Sfar’s graphic novels. She and Elmosnino, and sadly deceased Lucy Gordon (as Jane Birkin), glow from the screen in their doomed sadness.
    Baarìa – La porta del vento
    The only actual Mediterranean film screened in Koper was the Italian Baarìa – La porta del vento by Giuseppe Tornatore of Cinema Paradiso fame. Baarìa is a pleasant movie (more movie, than a film, we could say), despite its duration (150 minutes) and consequential failures in the rhythm. Although there is a feeling that it is no more than an old-fashioned composite of already seen motifs and pictures from Cinema Paradiso, Bernardo Bertolucci’s Novecento /1900/, and similar films, the story of a family and its protagonist’s travails through Italy’s political history of 20th century adds a feel-good, sentimental side to it, but it also gives a strong impression that it belongs to the kind of cinema we seem to have lost. The Bertolucci is now more than 30 years away, Francis Ford Copolla’s Godfather also, and it was joy to watch the film which profiles its characters and society in openly Marxist terms, and which does not show even a tiny trace of postmodern scepticism or suspension of belief. The irony is there too, but it is a kind of sympathetic irony aimed towards characters, not the irony which subverts the good deeds and revolutionary actions, strikes, workers’ marches, the pride of the common, working people, or love which stretches boy and a girl over the great class divide. In Baarìa, the revolution is depicted in a Bertoluccian way, coming lightly from simple and brave hearts of common people; the life is celebrated in the typically Mediterranean way, with arms wide open and wine always offered at the table. The inhabitants of Baarìa are in the end of the film left to draw their own conclusions: we cannot embrace the whole world as our arms are too narrow, but we keep trying to do so. No, there is no postmodernism in there – in Baarìa, they still believe in grandi narrazioni

    Tomislav Sakic, 25 October 2010, Fedeora.eu