Arsen Anton Ostojić: A Wonderful Night in Split (Ta Divna Splitska Noć, 2003)
reviewed by Inna Mattei © 2011
A Wonderful Night in Split (Ta Divna Splitska Noć, 2004) consists of three interconnected stories unfolding simultaneously in the center of the ancient Croatian city of Split on New Year’s Eve. These stories are linked through characters and the mesmerizing pathways of coincidence that characterize the film. The sense of order stems from the compact, triptych structure of the narrative, from the aesthetic continuity of the black-and-white palate, and from the repetition of motifs—staircases, alleys, rooms, birds—and other visual and narrative devices. Temporal and visual interlinking creates a sense of cohesion that brings the stories together. Yet, it is not order but transgression that is the driving force behind the stories and their rule-breaking protagonists. And, as we shall see, this transgression is encircled by Chaos, the opposite of order, or “Cosmos,” as conceptualized by Greek mythology.
My analysis does not aim to imply that the film falls neatly into a given mythological framework; such frameworks are in themselves synthetic. Rather I use the themes from classical mythology as clues for interpreting the structure of the film to yield more insights into the director’s vision, highlighting the richness of interpretations that can be found there.
Transgressive behavior is possible only in opposition to order, since it entails challenging a set of norms. Consequently, the interplay between order/Cosmos and transgression, represents, in my view, the central tension of the film. Visually, as well as cognitively, this tension can be linked to background-foreground pictures, such as those of M.C. Escher. Yet, this film is not merely an elegant maze, or a puzzle with a key. A maze is a kind of mini Cosmos. A Wonderful Night in Split, as we shall see, is a maze floating in the sea of Chaos.
The first story includes several transgressions. First is the implicit transgression of war, which took the life of little Duje’s father. Second is the transgressive relationship between Marija and Nike (Duje’s Mom and her lover), as seen through the eyes of the boy, who erroneously thinks that he can control the status quo. Thirdly, Nike’s transgressive drug smuggling leads him back into the city to kill Blacky the drug dealer and eventually return to Marija’s apartment, where he finds his death.
Similarly, the second story consists of a chain of transgressive events focusing on the drug dealer, Blacky, and a young girl named Maja. Suffering from heroin addiction, Maja is ready to do anything to stop her anguish. Without means to pay for the drugs provided by Blacky (whose death an hour later is in the first story), she agrees to be pimped out to a sailor from an American ship. The transgression of the drug user is amplified by the transgression of prostitution and further through Maja’s gross indifference to the sailor’s suicide. All she could think about is a fix. While the transgressions of the first story include a small group of people, the circle widens in the second story. An old lady provides the room for Frankie, the sailor, and Maja. Three other sailors provide the money to buy the prostitute for their friend. The drug lord/pimp facilitates the transaction. The homeless person tells Maja where to find the drug dealer. “Anyone who needs me knows where to find me,” says Blacky, who seems himself to be a helper.
The third story is focused on a young couple, Luka and Anđela, intent on finding a place to make love for the first time on New Year's Eve. After a few unsuccessful attempts, they run into Blacky. Luka accepts a key from Blacky to a place which turns out to be a secret junkie hangout on the top floor of a building located in the antique Roman palace that forms the center of the city. This room is not unfamiliar to Luka, since he used to be a junkie and Blacky’s client in the past. He is done with drugs now. Ironically, Anđela, who has never tried drugs, convinces Luka to take some acid before their first lovemaking session. Hallucinating, Luka becomes convinced that he can fly. Now he climbs atop of the Roman portico—the very symbol of proportions and order —and gets ready to ascend, when in fact he is falling down. The crowd in the square has gathered there for a rock concert. Chanting in unison the crowd urges the young man toward suicide. As we see, in the third story, the circle of transgression has expanded wider to incorporate the citizens of the town. The transgression of the Chorus is a collective one, just like the collective transgression of war, without which the first story would have not been possible. The locus of the crime shifts from oikos (alone) to polis—community as a whole.
Visually, Ostojić’s film is a huge accomplishment attaining textual and visual richness through an aesthetic economy of means. Images like birds, staircases, dark rooms, courtyards, and doorframes gradually mold into recurring motives, and this repetition is productive in terms of creating with repeating elements the atmosphere of the film, as will as a sense of maze or labyrinth. Black-and-white colors do not produce an ironic counter-balance to the black-and-white characterization of the characters; they intensify the moribund nature of the stories. Visually this black-and-white film is more dark than white. But its intense blackness is created, of course, by contrast with light. Thus the narrative tension between order and transgression is mirrored in starkly contrasting visual elements.
While my observations focused on the notions of Cosmos and Chaos, it is possible to build on a Gaia-Eros axis as well as other Greco-Roman motives in the film. For instance, the name of the heroine of the second story, Maja (Maya), means Mother Goddess in Greek. Furthermore, one may even view the film as a medieval tale unfolding in a medieval city (a series of medieval/Renaissance structures were erected within the walls of the Roman palace) populated by allegorical types and pairs: mother and son, the soldier, the sailor, the two lovers, etc. Anđela—the heroine of the second story—is also a name of Greek origin, which means “a messenger of God.” But one could add yet another layer of meaning since her name inevitably evokes Catholic/Christian connotations. Dichotomy and ironic reversal of values is lurking here as well since Anđela’s behavior is anything but angelic in Ostojić’s film. Having tempted Luka to try drugs again thereby causing his death, she is, in fact, a black or fallen angel.
While certainly instructive, these interpretations should not aspire to be definitive or final. A Wonderful Night in Split synthesizes narrative, cosmological, and mythological traditions in a unique way. Thus a medieval reading focusing on allegories and angels may overlook the intense physicality of the protagonists connected to death, Eros, and the anguish of drug addiction.
Like order and transgression, pain and pleasure are linked to one another and appear to be two sides of the same coin. They are associated with the same source of evil—the drug dealer—who, as the homeless man suggests, “is a legend” in this town. Blacky always seems to have what others want, whether it is money, a key to the room in the palace, women, or drugs. This source of evil is not, however, destructive. On the contrary, Blacky breaks his victims so he can install his own order. Strangely enough, he is himself controlled by the rock singer in the square. If the drug dealer controls a few clients, the rock singer seems to control the drug dealer and the whole town. . . . This brings us to the most enigmatic character in the film. Who is the rock singer in the square?
In real life the rock singer is Dino Dvornik, the rap/pop star from Split, who recently died of a drug overdose himself. Dvornik rose to popularity during the war—a time of chaos. He managed to remain popular after the conflict, thanks to his directness and honesty and unique musical style, which resonated with many of his admirers. Dvornik’s music combined a blend of rap, pop, and funk, earning him the title of “King of Funk” and “Funk Daddy.”
Two key things happen during the last few minutes of the film. First, the viewer realizes that the point of view of the film was not the point of view of the director/auteur, but the point of view of Luka, jumping off the portico, who becomes omniscient and omnipresent. The crane shots, the soaring perspectives of the narrow well-like courtyards and staircases that are woven throughout as a visual motif become linked to the point of view of the plunging character, who now assumes authority over the point of view of the film-maker.
Secondly, the film concludes with the same song that initially frames the narrative, the gibberish funk-rap of the entertainer/drug-lord portrayed by Dvornik. Thus the final “logos” of the movie is “chaos”: The rocker-shaman channels the film out of gibberish, and submerges it into gibberish, because the film’s Cosmos is surrounded by primeval Chaos. Therefore the final author is neither the orderly author, nor the transgressive protagonist, but a shaman, who neither creates, nor rebels, but, rather, channels a vision that is beyond his means of control.
Interestingly enough, if not for this framing in gibberish, the interpretations of the film would be completely different. For instance, the focus could shift to questions of poetic justice, probabilities in an improbable world, the role of fate, irony, and even cosmic irony, which entail divine interference. Such interpretations would have been possible, because they would help to explain the cosmos of the stories. But because the cosmos of the stories is surrounded by a sea of gibberish, such interpretations no longer make sense. The linguistic and logical hierarchies are no longer useful given the shaman-rocker framing, since such framing seems to reject the foothold of philosophical terra firma. Thus the visuals and language of the first and last few minutes are both chaotic and reduced to a minimum—with maximum impact.
1] Here it’s worth noting that Ostojic came back to the theme of war in his second film: No One’s Son (Ničiji sin) in 2008. Ostojic’s second film is accomplished in terms of characterization and script and overall acting. It is skillfully made, but it is more mainstream visually and takes less creative risks with the narrative.2] Dylan Sailor, Sarah Culpepper Stroup, ΦΘΟΝΟΣ Δ̓ ΑΠΕΣΤΩ: The Translation of Transgression in Aiskhylos’ “Agamemnon.” Classical Antiquity, Vol. 18, No. 1 (Apr., 1999), pp. 153-182).
A Wonderful Night in Split (Ta Divna Splitska Noć), Croatia, 2003
Black and White, 100 min.
Director: Arsen Anton Ostojić
Art Director: Velimir Domitrović
Script: Arsen Anton Ostojić
Music: Mate Matisić
Director of Photography: Mirko Pivčević
Production Designer: Goran Joksimović
Editing: Dubravko Slunjski
Cast: Dino Dvornik, Marija Škaričić, Nives Ivanković
Marinko Prga, Vicko Bilandžić, Ivana Roščić
Producer: Jozo Patljak
Production: Alka Film and Croatian Radiotelevision
Arsen Anton Ostojić: A Wonderful Night in Split (Ta Divna Splitska Noć, 2003)
reviewed by Inna Mattei © 2011