Friday, March 8, 2013

Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh

Mirisi, zlato i tamjan; drama, Croatia, 1971; D: Ante Babaja, S: Sven Lasta, Ivona Petri, Milka Podrug-Kokotović

A desolated Dalmatian island during Christmas. Mali and his wife Draga take care of the elderly Madona who is probably around 90 years old. They live at her place and have to endure the cranky behavior of the ultra-religious, bed-ridden granny. Draga leaves for a few days to Zagreb to see their children, while Mali stays with Madona, feeding her and sometimes arguing with her. Her large land was confiscated by the state while Mali is an ex-partisan living from a pension. Draga returns. While carrying a pipe at the coast, Draga starts crying because of their ill fate, but gets a hold of herself.

Ridding on the "black wave" of the Yugoslav cinema, adapting the grotesque eponymous novel by Slobodan Novak, director Ante Babaja crafted a gloomy drama that is surprisingly fascinating due to his tight directing skills and a great sense for the movie language. Cynically paraphrasing the Biblical tale of the three magi - gold (lack of money and wealth), frankincense (the smell of the 90-year old granny) and myrrh (rubbing oil on the granny's back) - Babaja's film is not so much a movie about how the lives of a young couple are burdened by taking care of the old granny or about old age, as it was the case with Haneke's similar "Amour", as much as it is the thematic twin of Teshigahara's "The Woman in the Dunes" - the universal unease of them both radiates from the common human fear of fatalistic destiny from which there is no escape - whether someone is sick, ugly, has to do a job she/he doesn't like or live a life he/she didn't choose, the viewers can identify with the story about how life puts people in a situation they never really wanted.

The naturalistic details (close up of Mali's face while he is putting the bowl under granny's butt so that she can urinate; Draga throwing the urine through the window; Mali and Draga having sex while the granny is seen in the next room, lying in bed, symbolizing how she is ever present with them) all constitute this theme about the two protagonists having to simply accept their fate. In one sequence near the end, while carrying a pipe, Draga starts crying because she realizes the full magnitude of their lives, but then gets a hold of herself. Mali just brushes it off by saying: "You can run from life, but after a while you will have to pause to take a rest. And then you will find out that an abyss if behind you as well as it is in front of you. It's all the same." Allegorically, the granny can also be seen as a symbol for the past, the tradition dying out, while Mali is the new generation coping with the new world that has yet to assimilate the past. Babaja's film is no piece of cake, sometimes he makes a misstep (the infamous chopping the head of a chicken) and the existentialist tones are really hard to sit through, but numerous sequences are simply phenomenal, anyway (Mali outside of the church while the song "Narodi nam se" is heard).


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