Lukas Nola: Celestial Body (Nebo, sateliti, 2000); Alone (Sami, 2001)

reviewed by Bruno Kragić © 2011

celestial bodyFrom a ten-year vantage point, the historical relevance of Lukas Nola’s film Celestial Body is exceptional. Having in mind titles such as Vinko Brešan’s Witnesses (Svjedoci), and especially Kristijan Milić’s The Living and the Dead (Živi i mrtvi), and Goran Dević and Zvonimir Jurić’s The Blacks (Crnci), Nola’s film could and should be considered the originator of the postwar-themed films in Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina. The qualification “postwar” has broader connotations here, reflecting a non-monolithic depiction of the war, an aesthetic departure from linear narrative in favor of the associative narration more commonly found in art-films, and the dominance of ambiance over plot.

In this respect, Nola’s film is not only a hallmark of the revitalization of Croatian war film (and feature film in general), but it also draws on a tradition which, at the time of its creation, had been almost completely abandoned. It reaffirms the poetics of one of the pinnacles of modernism in Croatian film, Vatroslav Mimica’s Kaya (Kaja, ubit ću te) from 1967 which also focused on the theme of war. While Mimica’s film was a part of a Croatian and Yugoslav modernist orientation, and at that, one of its most radical examples in terms of form, Nola’s film stood out as an exception at the time of its creation.

celestial bodyFrom the very beginning, through the monochromatic blue-hued long shots of the river and its surroundings, Nola demonstrates that his principal goal is depiction of ambiance. And indeed, the story about the wartime wanderings of his reticent protagonist, Jakov (Jacob) Ribar, is quite a direct allusion to the Bible. Following the itinerant movements of his central character who runs into lonely soldiers, brave women, and crazed enemy commanding officers, Nola entirely discards causal narrative organization and realistic dramaturgy. As a “travel film” Celestial Body is characterized by a mosaic-type dramaturgy, fragmentary narration, and a specific circular structure. The end of the film takes us back to its beginning and the principal female character, director of a home for orphans and the infirm, who was rescued by the protagonist immediately before (and in keeping with the Biblical allusions and anti-realist dimension of the film, literally brought to life by him) and is now observing a disturbance associated with an exchange of war-prisoners. The conclusion repeats the opening but with the difference that the spectator could not be aware of all the ramifications of the scene at the beginning of the film. The disturbance erupts because one of the prisoners, Jakov, leaves the group and starts walking through a mine field. The scenes of crowd from the beginning are replicated to be followed by ones in which Jakov advances through the field and then through water. These mid shots and long shots, however, leave the impression that Jakov is walking not through the water but on the water, which can be experienced and interpreted as yet another direct parallel with Christ. In charge of supernatural powers which he uses for the good, the protagonist of this film is, as we see, both unusual and passive, which fits him into the category of “weak” characters in Croatian feature film. He alters his surroundings more by chance than by force of will. Apart from the two situations when he is shown as a healing figure (when he appeases a sick man who is in shock and when he revives a murdered woman), his only specific active deed is at the beginning—i.e. end—of the film when he abandons the group. The separation, however, unmistakably positions him as the protagonist since it initiates the action which consists of episodes, fragments, and narrative moments originating in the protagonist’s wanderings. These segments are tied together by the main character, the space (a swampy, valley-like area in proximity of the sea), and wartime. In addition to having specific allusions to the delta of the Neretva river by the Croatian-Bosnian/Herzegovinian border, the space through which the protagonist roams is shown with stylized faded photography and is used as a universal symbol of the general atmosphere captured in the film.

celestial bodyWar is clearly portrayed in Nola’s film as a world of chaos, shock, and terror, a demonic vision which is further underscored by images of a sanatorium, and especially, towards the end of the film, by images of a prisoner camp, scenes with soldier-occupiers presented as a drunk mob, and formally with darker shades of photography, and sharp cuts. The circular structure implies the permanence of this state and also allows the film to be discussed as an example of a Fryeian mythos of irony since the prevailing feeling is an absence of any heroism and effective action (also their diffusion and predetermination for defeat), as well as a general sense that the world is ruled by chaos and anarchy. In this vein and considering the focus on the general theme of wandering, the film appears as an ironic variant of a romance with Jakov Ribar as a chance protagonist who embarks on a journey that, rather than ending, starts anew. This is emphasized by the omnipresence of water (in various forms: lake, water in a tub or barrel, rain, the sea), an element which traditionally belongs to the realm of the afterlife and the state of chaos or dissolution accompanying death (this is further underscored by images of dead or killed fish which repeat and vary in several scenes). Still, the film escapes such unambiguous classification. The fact is that life is not enslavement with no way out, the demonic epiphany can be overcome, and this hope—as weak as it may be—still exists as shown through the scenes of Jakov’s miracles and the symbolic shots of doves which traditionally stand for harmony, love and hope and which gather around the protagonist or land on him, such as in the last scenes of reviving.

celestial bodyOwing to its strong symbolic dimension, Celestial Body is a film which can be elegantly interpreted with archetypal, structuralist or psychoanalytic approaches, but at the same time a piece which functions paradigmatically as an art film because a classical plot is being suppressed in favor of ambiance. This is also a film in which atmosphere is conveyed in an extremely suggestive manner, not only at the level of stylized photography, but also in terms of the mise-en-scène, music (always present in the background), editing (where an important role is also given to the short shots which have an associative and aesthetic function), as well as the acting (extroverted episodes which are on the edge of a stylized grotesque complement the minimalism and subdued appearance of Filip Nola as Jakov). These are all the reasons why this particular film has been recognized as a novelty in newer Croatian cinematography at the very end of the twentieth century and one could assert that Nola’s aspiration to portray the war in archetypal and universal terms was indeed best realized through his choice of art-film.

aloneHaving proven to be a master at direction, Nola radicalized this kind of approach in his next project, Alone (Sami), made only a year later. In this film directorial intentions are even more resolute and secure, but at the same time abstraction is far more pronounced because of which (unlike his praised previous film) Croatian film critics mostly reacted with confusion. Reviews ranged from accusations about the extreme eccentric approach (at least in terms of Croatian cinematography) which was impossible to evaluate in relation to anything else, to objections to the hermetic style loaded with difficult-to-understand symbolism reflecting Nola’s proclivity for poster-like and literal symbols, to descriptions of the film as a work of high aesthetic tonality with the purpose of parading semantically exhausted signs, and finally to reviews which perceived the film as a strained pose dwelling in the death of visual beauty.

aloneAlthough the critics univocally praised the visual aspect of the film, this recognition was accompanied by objections to the lack of social context in the plot and the unclear spatial-temporal situation of the story. One could argue in general terms against this kind of negativity by pointing out that Nola’s earlier film provides some kind of context in a sense, but one could protest more specifically against such a perception of Alone on the grounds that it disregards what is essential in the film itself: what one sees on the screen. This is precisely the aspect that is emphasized in Alone, especially since the verbal dimension is almost absent (there are only about twenty brief exchanges). If we glance again in the direction of archetypal interpretation, Alone, like its predecessor, could be discussed as an example of the ironic mode: the film is dominated by anxiety and an almost funebrial atmosphere, which is further weighed down by photography dominated by a dark color scheme. Furthermore, the setting is a forest and a series of dilapidated underground spaces (a subterranean apartment), it takes place at some unspecified time in the future after an ecological catastrophe, and finally, its main theme is the impossibility of escaping traumatic experience.

aloneThe protagonist, who is tormented by the fact that his negligence at the wheel caused the death of a boy, ends up with his throat slit, entirely in keeping with the spirit of the image of human life as slavery with no way out, while the characters’ unsuccessful pursuit of emotional contact and communication appears from this perspective as an ironic mirror-image of the romance. Furthermore, if one considers this line of interpretation, symbols once again acquire dramaturgical functionality and become charged with a deeper meaning. One could even say that they establish a context in relation to Nola’s earlier film: here too dominate symbols possessing strong links with Christian iconography and iconology (such as images of fish, water, crucifix, but also milk as a general theme of redemption and spiritual healing).

aloneEnding the film without the possibility of redemption, at least not for the protagonist, and giving only to some characters the chance of finding peace through revenge, Nola seems to have reached the utmost limits of such archetypal preoccupations just as he exhausts an exploration of what were for him inspirational art-film poetics, most notably those of Andrej Tarkovskij and David Lynch. In his subsequent feature, True Miracle (Pravo čudo), he decided to return in a less hermetic and far more populist way to the postmodernist eclecticism he employed in his first feature, Russian Meat (Rusko meso). The eclecticism in the later film, however, manifested itself in the direction of a love-erotic grotesque, or a type of artistic populism in the spirit of Lordan Zafranović. For this reason, I would prefer to leave True Miracle outside the scope of the present essay and to establish that it was precisely Celestial Body and Alone that, in addition to their poetic and aesthetic kinship, remain the most elaborate and refined examples of different stylistic choices in Croatian feature film since independence. 

Translated by Aida Vidan

Bruno Kragić


Nebo, sateliti (Celestial Body), Croatia, 2000
Color, 85 min.
Director: Lukas Nola
Script: Lukas Nola
Director of Photography: Darko Šuvak
Music: Legen
Editing: Slaven Zečević
Set Designer: Velimir Domitrović
Costumes: Ksenija Jeričević
Cast: Filip Nola (Jakov Ribar), Barbara Nola (Lucija), Filip Šovagović (Uzelac), Rene Bitorajac (zapovjednik), Ivo Gregurević (Škaričić), Lucija Šerbedžija (Iva), Leon Lučev (Johnny), Goran Grgić (Senna), Predrag Vušović (Hans), Leona Paraminski (Jelena)
Production: Interfilm, Ban film, Croatian Radiotelevision

Sami (Alone), Croatia, 2001
Color, 81 min.
Director: Lukas Nola
Script: Lukas Nola
Director of Photography: Mirko Pivčević
Music: Svadbas
Editing: Slaven Zečević
Set Designer: Velimir Domitrović
Costumes: Ana Savić Gecan
Cast: Nina Violić, Jakov Nola, Leon Lučev, Nerma Kreso, Inge Appelt, Ksenija Ugrina, Bojan Navojec
Production: Alka film

 

Lukas Nola: Celestial Body (Nebo, sateliti, 2000); Alone (Sami, 2001)

reviewed by Bruno Kragić © 2011

Updated: 19 Apr 11