Hrvoje Hribar: What is a Man Without a Moustache? (Što je muškarac bez brkova?, 2005)

reviewed by Mima Simić © 2011

what is a man without a moustacheWhat is a movie without an audience? Croatian director Hrvoje Hribar (1962) could tell you a few things about this, as he made a couple himself (Croatian Cathedrals/Hrvatske katedrale, 1992; Tranquilizer Gun/ Puška za uspavljivanje, 1997) before he finally struck a chord with filmgoers and make the biggest homemade hit of the 2000s. Indeed, next to Vinko Brešan’s ultimate 1996 blockbuster (in Croatian terms) How the War Started on My Island (Kako je počeo rat na mom otoku), Hribar’s What is a Man Without a Moustache? still holds ground as the most popular Croatian feature film since the country seceded from Yugoslavia in 1991. Perhaps the number of 152,276 viewers that made this movie a hit won’t sound too impressive, but for a Croatian movie-going market it most certainly is, even when it comes to Hollywood blockbusters. In fact, for Croatian audiences, always ready to get high on Hollywood celluloid carbs, Hribar’s movie was more delicious than The Da Vinci Code, Sex and the City, New Moon, American Pie, Troy, Shrek Forever After, etc. As this kind of popularity of a domestic film product is nothing short of a miracle, it calls to be examined not only as a film—a piece of art, or genre—but even more so as a (pop)cultural, and social phenomenon.

Just like Brešan’s War On My Island (which had 337,000 viewers and was in the past 20 years outdone at the Croatian box office only by Cameron’s Titanic), Man Without a Moustache is a comedy. And, just like Vinko Brešan, who based his film on a script by his father Ivo, one of the most popular Yugoslav (and Croatian) playwrights, Hribar used as the textual base for his movie a bestselling novel of the same name by Ante Tomić, one of the most popular Croatian contemporary authors. Though not a guarantee of the film’s success, the choice of the text denotes the director’s populist tendencies as well as his desire to cater to all tastes and (as populist texts tend to do) – one ideology. When I speak about the “ideology” of the Croatian society, I refer neither to its Communist past, nor its wannabe-capitalist present. The ideology that has most deeply marked Croatian society since independence is patriarchy (exemplified by/through the role of the Catholic Church, right-wing government with a strong nationalist rhetoric, socio-cultural power distribution based on gender, etc.). Yet in the pro-European society that Croatia has become following the turbulent 1990s, patriarchy is slowly retreating (and adjusting to the new, more “civilized” circumstances). This story of patriarchy with a new face (without a moustache!) is the story of Hribar’s movie. So how does the author sell this old/new patriarchy to the audiences?

what is a man without a moustacheCroatian films have commonly drawn criticism for the “unnatural” language they use, language that doesn’t reflect the (social, linguistic) reality; language that no one speaks in “real” life. It’s no wonder then that a major appeal of both domestic super-successful films was the fact of their “linguistic verisimilitude.” Resolutely departing from the empty/artificial linguistic “center,” authors (dis)locate their narratives onto the (geographical, social, linguistic) margin: the first is situated on a small Dalmatian island, the other, the subject of this article, takes place in Dalmatian Zagora, the southern inland part of Croatia, generally viewed and represented as “backward,” i.e. patriarchal, religious, traditionalist, etc. Although both narratives are built on (regional, cultural) stereotypes (which are the lingua franca of the symbolic system), it is the power of the linguistic performance that gives them the air of authority and legitimacy—making their conservative patriarchal values seem quaint and almost endearing—just as the rural setting makes them seem closer to nature (they are all very passionate and instinctive, especially Tatjana, the female protagonist and the driving force of Hribar’s film).

Chaplin once famously observed that Life is a tragedy when seen in close-up, but a comedy in long-shot”; and this simple sentence could well serve for the analysis of Man Without a Moustache. As the movie is described and formulated as a comedy, let us look at the long-shot first. It opens on a young widow Tatjana (Zrinka Cvitešić) whose husband has fallen to death while working in Germany on the construction of a building. She gets some money as compensation for the marital loss, only to (inadvertently) become seriously rich thanks to civilization coming to the village, i.e. the building of a motorway. The affluent widow falls in love with the local (Roman Catholic) priest Stipan, a recovering alcoholic (Leon Lučev). She pursues him, and when he doesn’t show up for the date she gets involved with his twin brother Ivan, a Croatian Army general, the other side of the patriarchal medal. Instantaneously, she gets pregnant by him, but the general dumps her and in the end she gets together with the priest, who leaves his holy duty for his newly found(ed) family.

To be sure, the outlined plot seems like fecund ground for comic situations and treatment of the patriarchal “travesty” implied in the title. As Croatian society is (according to the latest 2001 census) intensely religious, with 87.8 % population declared Roman Catholic, the narrative core in which a priest is “seduced” by a woman to leave the church is quite symbolic as it implies the need for a “new” patriarchy, one that will rid itself of the barren past and the unnatural demands on both men and women. This celluloid critique of the “old” patriarchy seems even more radical for its drastic departure from the novel, in which Tatjana stays with the (moustachioed) general! But can this smooth-shaven and civilized version of patriarchy really satisfy women? To make sure it does Hribar employs all the weapons of mass seduction available to a film director.

what is a man without a moustacheAs a strongly comedic environment, the village community is presented as a choir of charming character-stereotypes made up of a village haiku poet/environmentalist; a traditionalist father who has returned from Germany to his native village with his grown-up daughter, not having consulted her about the move; a local drunk who likes to play with hand grenades; a bishop who, as punishment for Stipan’s misbehavior, sends him to “Mogambo” in Africa; Tatjana’s sister, a shopkeeper who speaks Spanish with the shoppers (influenced by TV soaps), etc. In accordance to this small army of endearing weirdos, the screenplay sparkles with (populist) one-liners, idiosyncratic curses (that the Croatian movie-going audience always readily responds to), a lot of sexual innuendo (and some practice), some (ostensibly benign) nationalist songs and stands, all packaged in a “natural,” rural setting where passions (be they sexual, alcoholic, patriotic, or paternalist) run free and are forgiven because it’s all, presumably, human nature.

Before we zoom into this comedy’s (already discernible) tragic close-up, perhaps we should stop to state the obvious. Of course populist comedies work with stereotypes, stereotypes about gender, class, ideologies, ethnicity/race, those relating to sexual orientation etc. The most influential film industry in the West, Hollywood, was built and continues to thrive on (re)producing, recycling and re-selling stereotypes. Indeed, aren’t Croatian and Hollywood blockbusters, for all their differences, just like Ivan and Stipan, different sides of the same coin: one rugged, and the other close-shaven? Don’t they all, by the very nature of blockbusterity, want to keep us in the long-shot, shunning close-ups or any intimation of a spectatorial tragedy?

But into the first close-up we go. Here we are first met with the problem of the “naturalizing” of traditional values (embodied by the village community existing in a bucolic patriarchal paradise). The narrative universe of the film, as mentioned, is a patriarchy undergoing a makeover. An extreme example of the patriarchy “before” would be those of the general refusing to use a condom while having sex with the widow because his “religion forbids” it. The “after” patriarchy is when Tatjana ends up with the “good” brother, who leaves the patriarchal institution, the Church. But where in the makeover process can we place this scene? Brothers are discussing Tatjana (in her presence). “Won’t you marry her?” says priest Stipan to his womanizing brother Ivan, who had just had (unprotected) sex with her. “She is wonderful”, the priest-in-love adds. “How do you know it if you haven’t fucked her?” retorts the general, adding: “I’ve had better fucks, but I didn’t marry them.” All the while Tatjana listens to this brotherly debate about who’s going to marry her and how good (or mediocre) a fuck she is without a single comment.

what is a man without a moustacheTatjana, mind you (who in the film is indeed referred to mostly as “the widow,” her identity defined by her marriage status) is the richest person in the village, owns both the shop and the restaurant/pub, i.e. is economically independent, and seems to be quite headstrong when it comes to pursuing her desires. (Her stubbornness is well exemplified by her 13-month long silence following her husband’s demise). Her female economic independence (facilitated by the technological development and echoing the changes that joining the EU will bring) is obviously counterbalanced by her female “nature,” which is (emotional, sexual) dependence on a man. Paradoxical to her economic status, Tatjana accepts the hegemonizing discourse of the Army and the Church that want to plan out her future. Of course, the “happy” ending that is provided vouches that the woman’s choice was her own as she ends up with the man she wanted in the first place, but under which conditions? Her sexual/bodily integrity was impaired by the general not using a condom (and getting her pregnant; not to mention the variety of STDs he possibly passed onto her considering his sexual life-style and “religious” beliefs), while her political integrity was compromised through her silent acceptance of the discussion between the brothers/two major patriarchal institutions. This “new” patriarchy may be looser than the old one, but the ideological change (as the title inadvertently suggests) has been—merely cosmetic.

These few examples would probably get the “civilized” “Western eye” rolling at the “Croatian guy,” with or without a moustache, before or after the ideological makeover. But let’s take a quick look at the ultimate Hollywood blockbuster to see how it functions on/for the American (ideological) market, whether it actually sells the same thing as does Man Without the Moustache only with more expensive makeup?
Our blockbuster of choice is Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight (2008), the movie that managed (much like Hribar’s) to seduce both critics and audiences. The epitome of evil in the movie is Joker, the essential Terrorist, who wants to prove that (American) society lies on rotten ethical foundations; that the government and individuals are equally corrupt. Joker is, obviously, the embodiment of actual American paranoia: the “anarchist” terrorist who despises wholesome American values (their common denominator being capitalism). The ultimate ideological problem of this film, however, does not lie with/in the super-villain Joker, but with its superhero, the billionaire Bruce Wayne aka Batman, who has teamed up with the repressive status apparatus: police and the government. In an illegal action Batman kidnaps a Chinese citizen and takes him to the US to be interrogated (and tried!), freely using the most advanced technology for surveillance of all (!) Gotham citizens in his pursuit of the enemy. The manipulative structure of American society finds ultimate redemption in the fact that the system has been preserved, regardless of the price (the breaking of inter/national laws, manipulation of the public through media, etc.). The American “superhero,” tragically, is but a mentally impotent function/tool of this preservation, rather than an individual, thinking subject.

Of course, just as A Man Without a Moustache provides enough material for it to be read as a subversion of the patriarchal system (the disrobing of the priest, the economic independence of women even in the most “backward” of villages, women’s political advancement in the character of the female minister of defense, etc.), we could also read the Dark Knight as a critique of the American politics/society, citing all the above examples to support the argument. The problem with both these movies, however, is in the mainstream (critical and audience) reception which doesn’t seem to be willing to zoom in and examine, and voice, the tragedy of their close ups, but rather consumes these films (together with their face-value dominant ideologies) as comedies, or action movies, swallowing the ideology with the denoted genre. It stops short of unmasking the creature underneath the shaven face; it stops short of unmasking Bruce Wayne.

It will come as no surprise, then, that the answer to the question—What is a Man Without a Moustache? is—Batman. And that is hardly a reason to celebrate, either in Croatia, or in the USA.

Mima Simić

What is a Man Without a Moustache? (Što je muškarac bez brkova), Croatia, 2005
Color, 109 min
Director: Hrvoje Hribar
Script: Hrvoje Hribar, Ante Tomić
Director of Photography: Silvije Jesenković
Music: Tamara Obrovac
Editing: Ivana Fumić
Cast: Zrinka Cvitešić, Leon Lučev, Ivo Gregurević, Jelena Lopatić, Bojan Navojec, Marija Škaričić, Jelena Miholjević, Nada Gačešić Livaković
Producers: Mirko Galić, Hrvoje Hribar
Production: Fiz ProductionD.O.O., Croatian Radiotelevision, Vizije Sft D.O.O., Croatian Film Clubs’ Association (Hrvatski Filmski Savez)


Hrvoje Hribar: What is a Man Without a Moustache? (Što je muškarac bez brkova?, 2005)

reviewed by Mima Simić © 2011