Goran Rušinović: Buick Riviera, 2008

reviewed by Nataša Milas © 2011

buick rivieraGoran Rušinović’s latest feature, Buick Riviera, premiered in the summer of 2008 at the Pula Film Festival where it won the Golden Arena award for Best Screenplay, shared by Goran Rušinović and Miljenko Jergović. Following Pula, Buick Riviera appeared at the Sarajevo Film Festival winning two Hearts of Sarajevo, one for Best Feature Film and the other one for Best Actor, shared by Leon Lučev and Slavko Štimac. Since then the film has been making the rounds of the film festivals, including the Seattle Film Festival, Denver Film Festival, Karlovy Vary International Film Festival, where it has been received with great enthusiasm.

Buick Riviera is based on Jergović’s nearly eponymous novel, Buick Rivera (2002), the first in a trilogy of narratives about people and automobiles, to be followed by Freelander (2006) and Volga, Volga (2009). Goran Rušinović, a young director from Croatia, who has made films such as Mondo Bob, 1997 and World Monster, 2003 decided to follow in Jergović’s footsteps when it came to working with the genre of road narratives. After releasing his film Buick Riviera in 2008, Rušinović began an adaptation of Jergović’s novel Freelander.

buick rivieraThe film Buick Riviera follows the fate of two men, Hasan Hujdur and Vuko Šalipur, two Bosnian expatriates who meet late one night on a desolate road in the middle of America. While Vuko is a man who moves from one situation to another with comparative ease, Hasan is an individual who has trouble overcoming the past and remains “frozen” in time. Both characters let emotions lead the way, and while Vuko expresses his sentiments loud and clear, Hasan internalizes his own, which prevents him from having a healthy existence. This is not a film in which the characters bring out the best in each other. Vuko and Hasan’s mutual sabotaging takes the viewers back to the heart of the conflict in Bosnia.

Both the novel and the film treat the relationship between man and his automobile. Jergović comments for the Croatian paper Nacional, “for me the automobile is a mixture between a live being, a work of art, a machine, and transmitter of my own psychology.”[1] Jergović’s sentiment, reflected in his novel, is equally felt in the film. Jergović titles his novel Buick Rivera, giving it a common last name, Rivera, an act by which he further personalizes and personifies the car. The old timer, a 1963 Buick Riviera, is, for Hasan, “his America.” It is a place of comfort, something which makes him calm, and collected, better and more patient. While reflecting this in his film Rušinović also accentuates another aspect of this relationship: the car is not a symbol of his new life, but a refuge from it.

buick rivieraOn a more artistic level Buick Riviera works as the vehicle that propels the plot. Due to the Buick’s old engine, Hasan is stuck on the road in the middle of the night and that is where he encounters his fellow countryman, the Serb, Vuko Šalipur. Furthermore, the culmination of the movie happens over dinner as the film’s only three characters discuss the car, when an almost devil-like deal is made over the Buick Riviera.

The novel begins with a weather report. Jergović is telling us that “spring was coming late in Toledo, Oregon,”[2] which becomes Fargo, North Dakota in the film. There we have, already indicated in the weather, a delay of progress. Even the natural development of climatic conditions has been suspended. Jergović further explains that it is minus 20 degrees Celsius and describes that type of cold. But Jergović lets go of the winter imagery after he has set up the background to the novel. Rušinović, on the other hand, uses the white snow imagery as his main trope, letting it reveal the frozen state of these émigrés, particularly Hasan, whose inability to move on in the new land, his suspended career, his frozen marriage, all are reflected in the images of the winter cold.  The audio effects of the harsh winter wind further mimic this dysfunctional reality.

buick rivieraThe events in Buick Riviera take place, so to say, in “no man’s land,” which Rušinović represents visually as a desolate white landscape of America. The “no place, no time” is further accentuated by the fact that it is the middle of the night, in the middle of the road, in freezing cold, when the two men meet. What starts as one man helping another in this unfortunate situation (a car broken down) quickly develops into them antagonizing each other. As soon as these two men sit together in the small enclosed space of the car, they bring their past and emotional baggage with them. Vuko, a Serb, who primarily identifies himself with Serbdom and the Orthodox Christian faith, automatically takes Hasan as a Muslim. But Hasan, who considers himself a child of socialism and Yugoslavia, tries to deny the labels Vuko provides for him. Everything that happens, that is said in that car, is explained, somewhat fantastically, by the fact that Vuko is a Bosnian Serb and Hasan, a Bosnian Muslim.

The culminating scene in the film occurs over dinner as Hasan, his wife Angela, and Vuko get to know each other better. The Buick, naturally, is central to their dinner conversation. Evoking Bertolt Brecht’s poem “Mask of Evil” to help her read Vuko’s face, Angela informs us that Vuko is a very relaxed man and such a man cannot be evil, since only grimaces are connected to the notion of evil. There is an overarching sense of evil over the dinner conversation, and the viewers are invited to follow Angela’s example and do their own reading of the characters’ faces. In the novel, the satanic presence at the table is accentuated through the protagonist’s thoughts. Hasan thinks for himself how his meeting with Vuko is no coincidence, “the devil reigns over coincidences,” and, as he looks at Vuko at the dinner table, he refers to him in his thoughts as “my devil.”[3] This notion is further amplified in both the novel and the film by the deal that happens at the table: the selling of the Buick. If we think of evil’s presence in these scenes, we attribute it as viewers to the deal-maker himself, Vuko Šalipur.

buick rivieraVuko, who has consistently been the movie’s main problem-solver—he helps Hasan with his car, gives him a ride, returns his wallet—attempts to resolve yet another of Hasan’s issues. Vuko realizes that this car is causing problems in Hasan and Angela’s marriage and that the car is a barrier for Hasan between himself and reality. By taking away his Buick (buying the car from Hasan) Vuko is also taking away the only thing that keeps Hasan calm and collected. Vuko bets on the car and wins, and this shift of the car’s ownership from Hasan to Vuko marks a major shift in Hasan. Hasan claims throughout the film that he doesn’t want to feel hatred, and defends himself by saying that he is not a Muslim when confronted by Vuko. Almost to the end he resists Vuko’s offenses but ultimately uses the car for revenge because of everything that has been stowed away in him for the past seventeen years (and has been brought to the surface by Vuko): the war, the death of his family, of his city. Hasan sends Vuko to his death—he cuts the brake line in the car before handing it over to Vuko—thus using his beloved Buick one last time.

As Hasan lies on the floor listening to a recording of his father’s voice, his nose bleeds, for the first time directly associating the blood with Hasan. Despite the father’s better advice, Hasan acts upon hatred. The music that plays in the background transitions to a scene of Vuko driving the car, thus connecting the relationship between Hasan and the other—Vuko—and his complicity in Vuko’s death, or even more significantly, to Vuko himself, equating the two on the scale of (petty) evil. Hasan’s face as he lies on the floor assumes a sinister look. Vuko dies and Hasan has blood on his hands. The last image of the film shows blood on the window of the Buick. A window of possibilities, of a new life in America, ends up smeared with blood. Here we are back as viewers in the car as we were at the start of the film. The Buick, therefore, together with us, has witnessed Hasan’s transformation and has visually experienced the blood on him. The blood from over there, Bosnia, has finally been transposed here, to America.

buick rivieraOne of the more striking features of this film is the emotive use of colors. Rušinović’s use of stark white settings has the strongest impact. Extended camera shots often track the movement of a single object, usually the titular car as it passes through a frame suffused by white snow and an equally colorless sky. In fact, the film begins with Rušinović’s camera literally incased in the snow-covered car. The viewer discovers the setting only as the windows of the car are cleared of white snow. The whiteness marks the banality and stasis of the main character’s life in the mid-western setting. In contrast to this is the color red, which marks the memory trace of blood and violence from the main character’s past. Rušinović denotes this landscape of memory with cuts to black and white surrealistic memory sequences. At the film’s end, the red and the white finally meet as past violence is transported into the present setting.

Although Rušinović’s version of Buick Riviera closely follows the plot of the novel—this is a very faithful rendition of Jergović’s text—he makes two important changes. Rušinović leaves out the fact that Vuko was a low-level war criminal back home. Even though Hasan and the viewers may allow themselves to assume this fact, Rušinović opts not to point fingers at anyone and instead focuses on transporting the animosity behind the Bosnian conflict to America. Rušinović also provides his viewers with an alternate ending. Instead of having Hasan disappear at the end of the novel and letting Vuko build his new life by inventing Hasan’s identity (as a terrorist), Rušinović’s ending is more concrete: revenge. Although Buick Riviera is most often generically categorized as a road movie, a psychological thriller, or a chamber drama, Goran Rušinović sees the film as a tragedy. As he notes, “the film is a story of two people who cannot have a happy ending.”

Nataša Milas


1] “An Interview. Miljenko Jergović. “Talijanski uspjeh hrvatskog književnika.” [The Italian Success of a Croatian Writer] Nacional. No. 376. 29.01.2003.
2] Jergović, Miljenko. Buick Rivera. Sarajevo: Šahinpašić, 2009, p. 5.
3] Jegović, Miljenko. Buick Rivera. Sarajevo: Šahinpašić, 2009,  p. 159.

Buick Riviera, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, USA, UK, Germany, 2008
Color, 86 min
Director: Goran Rušinović
Script: Goran Rušinović and Miljenko Jergović
Director of Photography: Igor Martinović
Music: Brane Živković
Editing: Vlado Gojun, Miran Miošić
Production designer: Tommaso Ortino
Cast: Slavko Štimac, Leon Lučev, Aimee Klein
Producer: Kate Bary
Production: Propeler Film in co production with Croatian Radiotelevision, Tradewind Pictures, Referesh Production, FAME


Goran Rušinović: Buick Riviera, 2008

reviewed by Nataša Milas © 2011