Antonio Nuić: Sex, Drink and Bloodshed (Seks, piće i krvoproliće, 2004); All for Free (Sve džaba, 2006); Donkey (Kenjac, 2009)

reviewed by Mario Kozina © 2011

Antonio Nuić’s entrance into Croatian cinema was greeted with general approval. As a student of the Academy of Dramatic Art in Zagreb he made two short films, On Site (Na mjestu događaja, 1998) and a TV drama Give Them Back Their Dinamo (Vratite im Dinamo) in 1999 for which he was conferred an award at the Academy of Dramatic Art Students’ Festival (FRKA). His debut on the big screen was as a director of one of the three soccer-related stories from the omnibus Sex, Drink and Bloodshed (Seks, piće i krvoproliće, 2004).[1] Although the quality of the omnibus was uneven, critics praised its move away from (post)war themes and its focus on contemporary, urban subject matter. Many critics praised Antonio Nuić’s story as the most successful of the three, and luckily,[2] his good fortune continued in his feature works: All for Free (Sve džaba, 2006) and Donkey (Kenjac, 2009).[3]

sex drink bloodshedThe appeal of these films stems in part from the way Nuić depicts the everyday life of his characters. Croatian cinema of the nineties was heavily infused with contemporary politics. The films were burdened with (post)war themes and their authors often used them as an ideological vehicle to spread the truth about everything that happened during and after the war. In Nuić’s films the war is a part of their diegetic universe, but in terms of the plot and ideological stance, it is relegated to the background. For example, one of the most surprising elements of his story in Sex, Drink and Bloodshed is the lack of an explicit link between the characters and the postwar period, especially when compared with other works of popular culture situated in the same milieu of the Dinamo [Zagreb] soccer club fans - the Bad Blue Boys,[4] These characters were often depicted as a group of individuals who hadn’t found their way during the period of economic transition, who drown their frustration in alcohol, drugs, violence, and crime, and who transfer ethnic tensions from the battlefield to the soccer field. Nuić kept only their aggression and addiction to alcohol, and these function as a buffer that keeps them from confronting their personal problems. Similarly, All for Free shows a country ruined by bad postwar politics, although the unfortunate socio-political climate isn’t as important as the consequences of the destructive patriarchal mentality that shapes the lives of the characters. The plot of Donkey takes place in the summer of 1995, the summer of the Storm military operation that marked the end of the war in Croatia.[5] The echoes of the war can be seen and heard on news broadcasts on the radio and TV-screens, while the distant gunfire in the dark increases the feeling of emotional anxiety which dominates the plot. Also, the characters of disabled people are important to mention because they reflect the detachment of Nuić’s poetic from the cinema of the previous decade. Miro (Bojan Navojec) from All for Free and Boro’s brother Pero (Emir Hadžihafizbegović) in Donkey lost their limbs during the war, but they are not presented as pathetic reminders of enemy aggression. Their physical disability is analogous to the emotional disability of the main characters. The drama of both films comes from the protagonists’ subconscious need to confront the reasons that brought them to the state of emotional impairment. Nuić articulates their efforts through plot construction, mise-en-scène, and visual solutions, and the roots of his thematic and formal preoccupations can be traced back to the omnibus Sex, Drink and Bloodshed.

all for freeChoosing to place the plot of his first big-screen film in urban Zagreb may seem atypical for the rest of Nuić’s work which takes place in the provincial parts of Bosnia and Herzegovina; however, here he introduces key motifs he will continue to develop in his later films. In the opening shots we see a group of soccer fans beat up a man.[6] Through the fast exchange of medium shots of the four people involved, filmed with a hand-held camera, Nuić creates a strong sense of a closed male group grounded on exclusion whose members are united by their aggression. We don’t see the person they are hitting, nor do we see the setting where the action takes place. The impression is heightened when the plot moves from unidentified urban exteriors to the more intimate space of one of the character’s living room. The choice of space can be understood literally (motivated realistically by the plot), but Nuić uses the mise-en- scène to heighten its metaphorical dimension.

donkeyThe characters talk about Njonjo’s marriage and his relationship with his wife Martina (Leona Paraminski). Her presence is mostly felt off-screen. She very rarely enters the circle where the guys talk, smoke and drink, never crossing the living room threshold. In fact, she gives the impression of being an angry harridan, always yelling and cursing, who haunts the apartment and the men’s conversation. The guys in the living room discuss the fact that the day Martina supposedly got pregnant with Njonjo she had also slept with both Mario (Bojan Navojec) and Goc (Rakan Rushaidat), which makes them potential fathers of the baby. This knowledge could have led to a confrontation among them, maybe even to the disruption in their friendship, but it does not. With the help of alcohol, cigarettes and soccer chants, the subversive potential of the information is toned down through friendly teasing, which reaffirms the mechanisms of patriarchal mentality that led to Njonjo’s discomfort. This also explains why he married Martina. It was to prove his maturity and sense of responsibility, although he lacks both. Martina’s presence reminds Njonjo of his own weaknesses, which is why she becomes an object of loathing. The anxiety that lurks beneath Njonjo and Martina’s relationship is emphasized by the ambiguous ending: Njonjo leaves the circle of his friends to look through the window, and then the film cuts to the bedroom where his wife and child are trying to sleep. Seeing these two shots together brings back the metaphorical dimension of the living-room drama, while the ominous final fade-out once more destabilizes the false reconciliation among the friends.

all for freeThe emotional interplay between a man, his family or friends, the mentality of the society he grew up in, and a woman will be the dominant motif of the rest of Nuić’s works, although he plays his cards differently each time. His next film All for Free, set in central Bosnia, begins with a story about four deadbeat friends stationed in the town of Vareš, who, much like the soccer fans from the previous film, find themselves in a situation where the paternity of one of them is brought into question. Josip (Franjo Dijak) has slept with Marko’s (Enis Bešlagić) wife and she is pregnant. While in the previous films friendly teasing releases the tension of the situation, here one of Josip’s comments results in Marko killing Josip and Miro, and he himself ends up in jail. Only one of them, Goran (Rakan Rushaidat) survives the bloodshed. He decides to sell his house and leave his hometown to travel the unknown.

The part of the film before the credits has several analogies with Nuić’s previous film. The plot deals with the problem of friends and paternity, and the characters are played by the same actors.[7] However, the revelation of infidelity, partly because it happens after the wedding, has different consequences here than it did before. It destroys their friendly/familial community.[8] The locus of the revelation is once more at the table where friends/brothers gather to drink together, while the presence of a woman again haunts the conversation. Unlike in the earlier film, in All for Free the anxiety that smolders underneath the friendship is brought to its logical end, literally destroying their lives. Goran’s voyage can therefore be understood as a search for a new family. Having sold everything he owns, he travels from town to town with a luncheon van offering drinks for free in exchange for his collocutors’ life stories. Thereby he reconstructs the situation where men gather to drink, smoke, and sing together as a way of forgetting their problems and channeling their suppressed discontent. It is no wonder that during his travels he witnesses different faces of the same oppressive mentality which led to his unhappiness in the first place, and from which he tried to escape.

However, Goran’s voyage stops when he meets Maja (Nataša Janjić), a woman imprisoned in the same situation. After her fiancé is killed she lives emotionally and financially dependent on his brother. Like Martina from Nuić’s previous film and Marko’s wife from the beginning of this one, Maja is perceived not as an individual, but as a material possession that can be transferred from brother to brother. However, Goran sees her as a person, and the sparks of his romantic interest change something in her own understanding of herself. Contrary to the audience’s expectations Goran and Maja do not end up together, but Maja, as suggested by the last shot, manages to leave the oppressive situation in which she has been living. However, her future remains precarious. As suggested by Goran’s unsuccessful travels around the country (and by the title itself),[9] one can only wonder if it is possible to break free from the chains of patriarchal mentality.

donkeyTo answer this question Nuić again “rotates” some of his cast in his next film. In Donkey Nataša Janjić plays the lead female character. This time she is Jasna, a woman from Zagreb who hasn’t finished her studies because she marries an emotionally distant man. We meet her on a trip to Drinovci, a village in the ethnically Croatian part of south Herzegovina (in Bosnia and Herzegovina) where her husband Boro was born and to which they travel with their son Luka (Roko Roglić). Although the casting of Nataša Janjić in some ways represents a link between Nuić’s first and second feature, the dramatic tension of Donkey is again related to his male protagonist. Furthermore, because of the way the cinematic techniques are used to present its plot and character(s), Donkey is Nuić’s first film that could be completely understood as the inner drama of its main male protagonist. The plot builds upon the archetypal conflict between father and son. Boro’s father Paško (Tonko Lonza) has never loved him, nor has he loved Boro’s mother. As a matter of fact, Paško had behaved so viciously toward her that she committed suicide by drowning herself in a local lake. Boro repeats his father’s mistakes, although he is not aware of his own behavior.

Similarly to Goran’s voyage in All for Free, the story of Boro’s return to his native village has a strong psychoanalytical subtext that is now enriched with the smart use of cinematic techniques. The opening, which is filmed in black and white, suggests that the story takes place in another space and time that do not have to be understood in a literal, historical sense. This kind of opening could also suggest that the viewer is entering the subjective space of one of the characters. It is not by chance that once the color appears the image is dominated by a washed-out yellow, completely devoid of green, which suggests summer heat but also Boro’s suppressed emotions. The color is further connected to the limestone that dominates the landscape and that too has a symbolic meaning. In fact, if we accept the visuals as an exteriorization of Boro’s inner world, then the complete architecture of the space, and even some of the characters and motives, have symbolic meaning. Limestone area rocks become the male element standing for the stubbornness and emotional remoteness of Boro and his father, while the lake becomes the female element, connected to Boro’s mother.

sex drink bloodshedThe subplot that evolves around the discovery of a drowned boy’s dead body announces the emergence of long-suppressed material from Boro’s subconscious. The catalysts of these events become Boro’s brother Pero and his wife Jasna. Pero is an example of a man who managed to have a normal relationship with his wife and children, despite the tragedy that disabled him. Jasna is even more important, because she takes on the role of his mother. Unlike Boro’s mother, Jasna is strong enough to confront her husband and make him change. The escalation of their conflict takes place in the lake where Boro’s mother drowned, and where Boro himself almost drowns. But when Jasna manages to save him, the lake changes its meaning from a symbol of death to a symbol of new life. Boro comes out of the lake as if reborn and ready to confront his father. The confrontation between Boro and Paško reveals the secret behind Paško’s emotional unavailability that once again turns out to be the key thematic complex in Nuić’s opus. Like Njonjo in Sex, Drink and Bloodshed, Paško had to marry a woman he never loved. Her presence reminded him of his own weakness, so he transformed his discontent into a shell of emotional coolness which he used to torment his wife and son.

The communication between Boro and Paško puts a stop to the continuing cycle of emotional torment. The change in their relationship is symbolized by the motif of the animal in the title. In the popular imagination the donkey stands for someone stubborn, but it can also stand for someone who is able to carry a lot on his back. By buying him from a local dealer Paško makes him a pet for Luka, and therefore a token of a new bond between his son and grandson. The donkey, the lake, and limestone, just like Goran’s one-day voyages to different parts of Bosnia, symbolize the different faces of a specific mentality that is stubborn, cruel, and unrelenting, but at the same time susceptible to change.

donkeyIn many ways Donkey represents a peak in Nuić’s oeuvre. The mise-en-scène, the choice of setting, and the plot structure in his first films showed a tendency to create parts of the film’s diegetical universum which functionally complement the main character, but never as successful as in Donkey. The authenticity of locations and the realism in portraying the life, speech, and customs of a small village in southern Herzegovina, thanks to the thoughtful use of cinematography and paced editing, manage to transcend the factographic recording of local exotica and makes this a universal story of the (dis)ability of an individual to confront the restrictive rules of the mentality he comes from. Furthermore, it is important to emphasize that in Nuić’s films this individual is always male. This makes his stories “masculine” dramas, although the presence of female characters is of the utmost importance for their emotional development. While his first three films show a gradual improvement in the construction of characters through complex emotional relationships and skillful use of visuals, Nuić’s female characters stay somewhat one-dimensional in their passivity of resigned women (Marko’s wife, Boro’s aunt) or angry furies (Martina, Jasna). However, Maja’s getaway at the end of All for Free gives us a hint that in one of his next films Nuić’s female characters could have a chance to articulate their position through a drama of their own.

Mario Kozina


Notes

1] The omnibus was a debut for two more people who placed contemporary Croatian cinema in their debt. Zvonimir Jurić is currently one of the most promising Croatian film directors, and Boris T. Matić helped to develop the domestic festival scene. He also produced this one, as well as two of Nuić’s feature films.

2] For example: On the cover of the DVD there is a quote of Dragan Jurak’s, film critic for the political weekly Feral Tribune, who said: “Antonio Nuić is definitely a promising boy. A savior. Croatian film hasn’t seen a feature-film debut as good as this one not only since [Dalibor] Matanić’s, or since [Vinko] Brešan’s, but since Zoran Tadić’s Rhythm of Crime in 1981.”

3] All for Free was awarded four Golden Arenas at the national festival of feature film in Pula (for best film, director, screenplay and the supporting actress, Nataša Janjić), while Donkey won three awards at the same festival. Nuić won The Golden Arena for best screenplay, Mirko Pivčević was given an award for his brilliant cinematography, while Srđan Gulić was awarded for his touching score. Donkey also won an Oktavijan, the diploma awarded by the Croatian Society of Film Critics.

4] For example: Borivoj Radaković’s play Welcome to Blue Hell (Dobrodošli u plavi pakao, 1994), (the soundtrack for its theater adaptation, as well as for the omnibus, was developed by Pips, Chips & Videoclips, a band that holds an important place in soccer pop-culture), and Alen Bović’s novel Metastaze (Metastases, 2006) and its film adaptation of the same name (2009) directed by Branko Schmidt.

5] One can even draw a parallel between the end of the war in a broader historical sense and the tensions that have been relieved between the characters.

6] The first part of the film is concentrated on the Bad Blue Boys who get beaten up by Torcida, fans from their rival club, Hajduk, from Split. They blame Njonjo’s wife Martina for the beating, because she called him on his cell phone while they were in hiding, exposing them to the angry Torcida.

7] The only exception is casting of Enis Bešlagić who replaced Hrvoje Kečkeš.

8] In one part of the film Goran states that his friends were the only family he had.

9] The meaning of the title in Croatian can also be understood as an irony, because it can also mean all in vain.

 


Sex, Drink and Bloodshed (Seks, piće i krvoproliće), Croatia, 2004
Color, 76 min.
Director: Boris T. Matić, Zvonimir Jurić, Antonio Nuić
Script: Boris T. Matić, Zvonimir Jurić, Antonio Nuić
Director of Photography: Vjeran Hrpka, Thomas Krstulović Music: Saša Lošić
Production Designer: Nedjeljko Mikac
Editing: Marin Juranić, Veljko Šegarić
Cast: Admir Glamočak, Matko Fabeković, Bogdan Diklić (first story), Leon Lučev, Krešimir Mikić, Daria Lorenzi (second story), Franjo Dijak, Leona Paraminski, Rakan Rushaidat, Hrvoje Kečkeš, Bojan Navojec (third story)
Producer: Boris T. Matić
Executive Producer: Hrvoje Osvadić
Production: Propeler film

All for Free (Sve džaba), Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia, 2006
Color, 95 min.
Director: Antonio Nuić
Script: Antonio Nuić
Director of Photography: Mirsad Herović
Music: Siniša Krneta, Hrvoje Štefotić
Production Designer: Nedjeljko Mikac
Editing: Marin Juranić
Cast: Rakan Rushaidat, Nataša Janjić, Emir Hadžihafisbegović, Bojan Navojec, Franjo Dijak, Enis Bešlagić, Sergej Trifunović, Vanja Drach, Pero Kvrgić, Daria Lorenzi
Producer: Boris T. Matić
Co-producers: Miro Barnjak, Miroslav Stanić, Zijad Mehić
Production: Propeler Film, Magic Box Multimedia, Porta produkcija, Television of Bosnia and Herzegovina

Donkey (Kenjac), Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, UK, Serbia, 2009
B&W, Color, 88 min.
Director: Antonio Nuić
Script: Antonio Nuić
Director of Photography: Mirko Pivčević
Music: Srđan Gulić Gul
Production Designer: Nedjeljko Mikac
Editing: Marin Juranić
Cast: Nebojša Glogovac, Nataša Janjić, Tonko Lonza, Emir Hadžihafisbegović, Momo Kiki Kapor, Asja Jovanović, Roko Roglić
Producer: Boris T. Matić
Co-producers: Mike Downey, Srđan Golubović, Jelena Mitrović, Antonio Nuić, Vanja Sutlić, Sam Taylor
Production: Propeler Film, MaNuFaktura, Croatian Radiotelevision, Film and Music Entertainment, Film House Baš Čelik, Zagreb Film Festival

Antonio Nuić: Sex, Drink and Bloodshed (Seks, piće i krvoproliće, 2004); All for Free (Sve džaba, 2006); Donkey (Kenjac, 2009)

reviewed by Mario Kozina © 2011

Updated: 19 Apr 11