Darko Mitrevski: Bal-can-can (Bal-kan-kan, 2005)
reviewed by Maria Hristova© 2015
Darko Mitrevski’s second full-length feature film Bal-can-can is a contemporary picaresque humorously revealing the absurdity of the Balkan sociopolitical situation in the 1990s. The highest grossing film in Macedonia at its release, the feature received a Special Mention of the Russian Film Critics and Film Scholars at the 27th Moscow International Film Festival and won the “From A to A” Award, Best Film In the South-East European Region at the Motovun Film Festival.
The film’s very first scene, a conversation between several corpses in a morgue, sets a dark, but comic and surreal atmosphere. It is through the story of one of the dead bodies that we are introduced to the narrative. A pair of small-time swindlers and close friends, Serafim and Vitomir, draw the attention of an underground crime lord, Shefket Ramadani. At his prompting they attempt a train robbery, but are ambushed by Yugoslav soldiers. Serafim is captured and spends the next several years in prison. Vitomir makes his escape and swims over to Italy where he begins a new life as the Mafioso, Vito Genoveze. On his deathbed Vito recalls his blood brother, Serafim, and makes his son swear that he will help the decedent of his father’s best friend, the boy Trendafil Karanfilov.
Trendafil, who was born in prison and grew up in an orphanage, lives together with his wife Ruzha and his chair-ridden mother-in-law, Zumbula. All the family members are named after flowers (trendafil is the Macedonian word for rose, ruzha is hollyhock, zumbul is hyacinth, and karanfil is carnation), but their life is far from beautiful and peaceful. After Macedonia declares its independence, fear of invasion and violence prompts the conscription of able-bodied men for the local militia. In order to escape involvement in the fighting, Ruzha and Trendafil decide to leave Macedonia while things settle down.
The family decides to leave for Bulgaria for the summer where they would find work on the Black Sea coast. Unfortunately, they cross the border during an unprecedented heat wave and when their car breaks down in the middle of nowhere the mother-in-law dies from a heat stroke. While attempting to bury her body, the absurdity of Bulgarian bureaucracy is presented in truly Kafkaesque proportions. The labyrinthine situation is characterized by the mantra, “there is a procedure for everything.” Unable to bury the body, the couple buys a carpet to roll it in and transport it back home. But the carpet is stolen and the body goes missing. Faced with such a problem, Trendafil decides to contact his father’s blood brother’s son, Santino Genoveze, and ask for help hunting down the carpet and the body. Santino, rather than follow in his father’s steps, is a small-time lazy thug. However, after receiving the call from Trendafil, he decides to fulfill his promise and help the Macedonian. Thus begins Trendafil’s modern-day odyssey through the underworld of the disintegrating Yugoslavia.
The pair begins their search in Belgrade where time seems as if frozen, and subsequently travels through the various territories of the former Yugosalvia. In a mixed Catholic (Croat) and Muslim village one-time neighbors are killing each other, but not because of their religious differences, but because of competing crime trade interests. The absurdity of their conflict is revealed during a lunch scene where the two sides take a break from “war” to sit down and eat at the same table and the same food, singing the same songs. The violence escalates because of an accidental drunken shot, which leads to mutual extermination.
The search ultimately takes the two friends to Kosovo where they face off a Kosovar crime group mixed in child trafficking for organs. The syndicate is headed by Shefket Ramadani (Junior), the son of their fathers’ nemesis. In a dramatic climax, Trendafil and his Italian friend kill the mobsters and save a group of children. Santino is killed, but Trendafil finally finds the carpet and brings back the children to his wife who has long dreamed of starting a family.
One of the main elements that sets Mitrevski’s work apart from other contemporary pictures is the rich subtext of external cultural references. The film itself is dedicated to the Hollywood director Billy Wilder (Sunset Boulevard 1950, Sabrina 1954, Some Like It Hot 1959), known for his preference for tight plots and memorable dialogue, which are both present in Bal-can-can. Furthermore, the villain, Shefket Ramadani, is a reference to a well-known character in “Hadjzia il’ bos” (“Either Wealthy or Barefoot” 1987), an iconic song by one of the most famous Yugoslav rock bands, Zabraneno pusenje (No Smoking), originating in Sarajevo. The first line of the song, “Pos’o je dobar, a para laka” (“The job is good, and the money easy”) is used by the film’s Shefket Ramadani Senior to convince the two friends to attempt the train robbery. The song title and the lines used in the film refer to the ambiguous colloquial phrase, which can be interpreted in two ways: on the one hand, you either have to engage in some kind of illegal activity and profit from others’ work or remain poor (barefoot); on the other, hadjzia is a Turkish work denoting a pilgrim, whereas “bos” could refer to the highest position in a criminal organization. The phrase becomes key in framing and understanding the way of thinking that is revealed to be the kernel at the center of all the problems that befall both the protagonists and their country. There is no middle ground: you are either rich or poor; an honest person, hadzija, or a criminal.
In addition, the script is peppered with film references: Macedonia is the brand of cigarettes Monica Belucci smokes in Malena (2000), and the two friends planning to storm into the abandoned factory to search for the carpet are likened to the protagonists in Franco Nero’s The Battle of Neretva (1969). Trendafil’s neighbor’s name, Dzhango, could also be an allusion to a well-known film character played by Franco Nero in the eponymous Italian Spaghetti Westerns, Django (1966), by Sergio Corbucci. These references create a rich tapestry of cultural allusions, but also create extradiagetic connections, granting the film a realistic dimension—these are all reference that the Macedonian audience would be familiar with, while foreign viewers might not catch the connections.
The entire premise of the film—in search of the mother-in-law’s dead body—is symbolic. I would like to suggest here that one particularly useful frame for examining this film is through Mikhail Bakhtin’s notion of the chronotopeand its corollary, the encounter on the road. According to Bakhtin, “in mythological and religious realms the motif of meeting plays a leading role […]: in sacred legends and Holy Writ (both in Christian works such as the Gospels and in Buddhist writings) and in religious rituals. The motif of meeting is combined with other motifs, for example that of apparition (“epiphany”) in the religious realm” (98). The importance of this idea lies in the potential for transgressing social and ontological boundaries while on the road – through meeting people of different social standing or through experiencing otherworldly moments that contradict the rational definition of the material world. While the film under my consideration does not exhibit a religious aspect in the traditional sense, the feature ends with Trendafil gazing at the night sky and the Milky Way. He has saved a group of children from different countries and has deciding to adopt them all, symbolically overcoming national and ethnic division and creating a family by choice, based on love and tolerance. Thus, the encounters on the road are, in fact, the key moments in Bal-Can-Can that lead to cathartic, personal changes.
Interacting with the various representatives of each Balkan state he visits forces Trendafil to become a more active and self-assured person in order to achieve his goal. While at the beginning of the film, he is content to sit in front of the TV watching documentaries on wild life, and to hide in a dog house in order to escape from any confrontation, by the end of the movie, Trendafil stands up to the villains.
It is also through the various encounters on the road that Mitrevski is able to make fun of the war in the former Yugoslavia, suggesting that religion and ethnicity have little to do with the true reasons for violence—it is the habitual and stereotypical Balkan carelessness and brutality that spark the shoot off at the mixed village. The ethnic problem between Macedonians and Albanians are also brought down to the level of crime syndicates and illegal business interests—ethnic Albanians and Macedonians are working together for their personal gain, regardless of their respective religions and languages. Thus, the meetings on the road not only transform the protagonist, but also undermine the viewers’ interpretation of historical events and understanding of ethnic and national identities.
The journey is a type of quest—a quest for a body on the surface, but also a quest for the lost past on a deeper level. The past, symbolized by the mother-in-law’s corpse, represents the generation of the protagonists’ parents, who are dead or dying, but also lost: the search for the dead body wrapped in a carpet with “folklore” motives stands in for the search for a disappearing past and for one’s roots.
Trendafil’s route ties all the Balkan nations together: Macedonia, Bulgaria, Serbia, Bosnia, Kosovo, and despite the language and cultural differences, the absurdity is the same everywhere with minor variations, such as the emphasis on bureaucracy in Bulgaria or turbo folk music in Serbia. However, while satirizing these surface differences, the film in a way reinforces them, or at least, does not challenge them. True, a picaresque is subversive in that it reveals in a satirical manner the social problems, but the themes of corruption, inefficiency, brute carelessness and cruelty, and amoral opportunism have all been deeply ingrained in the national self-consciousness of most Balkan states—these problems are acknowledged and part of the sociopolitical discourse. A hidden and thus a more insidious set of problems are the ever-present neighbor rivalry, the ethno-national stereotyping, the lack of tolerance and desire for cooperation, the refusal for a dialogue. These problems are present in the film, but accepted unquestioningly, as if they are invisible, and remain unchallenged and uncontested.
1] Bakhtin coined the term chronotope (from the Greek chronos and topos, literally time-space) to refers to the “intrinsic connectedness of temporal and spatial relationships that are artistically expressed in literature […] it expresses the inseparability of space and time (time as the fourth dimension of space)” (1981: 84).
Bakhtin, Mikhail. 1981. The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays. Austin: University of Texas Press.
Bal-kan-kan, Republic of Macedonia, Italy, 2005
Director: Darko Mitrevski
Writer: Darko Mitrevski
Producers: Darko Mitrevski, Alessandro Verdecchi, Gianluca Curti, Loris Curci, Robert Naskov
Music: Kiril Dzajkovski
Cast: Valdo Jovanovski, Adolfo Margiotta, Svezda Angelovska, Branko Djuric, Jelisaveta Sablic, Toni Mihajlovski
Darko Mitrevski: Bal-can-can (Bal-kan-kan, 2005)
reviewed by Maria Hristova© 2015