Fatmir Koçi: Necrology (Nekrologji, 1994)
reviewed by Thomas Logoreci© 2016
A critical understanding of Albanian cinema has been limited not only by access to the films themselves but also a lack of proper subtitling in foreign languages. Even the most knowledgeable critic would be hard-pressed to critique, much less name, a half-dozen motion pictures made either under Albania’s rigid Communist dictatorship (1945-1990) or during the heady, chaotic days that have marked much of the twenty-five years since the regime’s fall.
Most notable among post-communist auteurs is Gjergj Xhuvani, whose Slogans (Parullat, 2001), a reckoning with the half century rule under the dictator Enver Hoxha, briefly signaled the possibility of an Albanian moviemaking renaissance. Subsequently, Xhuvani yielded to more conventional modes of style and form, first with his humorous Second World War period piece Dear Enemy (I Dashur Armik, 2005) followed by the crude comedy of East West East (Lindje Perendim Lindje, 2009). There is a dismissive notion among the Albanian cultural elite that Slogans plotline regarding a small village forced to erect massive Socialist lettering on a mountainside was specifically designed for foreign festival audiences eager for a taste of ‘exotic’ Albania. Yet even Xhuvani’s follow-up, Dear Enemy, made hardly a ripple in Albanian cinemas usually packed full only when subtitled Hollywood fare is playing.
This lingering conflict between festival and art house expectation on one side, and assumptions about what constitutes Albanian cinema on the other, has been the crucible for filmmakers attempting to craft a national identity. Perhaps no director personifies this struggle more than the other leading name in post-communist filmmaking, Fatmir Koçi (b. 1959).
Koçi came to critical prominence outside Albania with perhaps his most recognizable work, Tirana Year Zero (Tirana viti zero, 2001), a winner at that year’s Thessaloniki Film Festival. Following a pyramid scheme collapse in 1997, Albania underwent a breakdown in civil order setting off a painful rupture which took many years for the country to recover from. Unlike the rest of East Europe which managed to transition into the new world order, the chaos of 1997 caused foreign investment to dry up as images of looting mobs and young children brandishing AK-47’s became the prevalent Western notion of Albania. With Koçi’s semi-fictional rendering of a young couple coming to terms with the aftermath of this trauma, Tirana Year Zero effectively gave voice to its immediacy in a tightly edited package suitable for international consumption. With its title nod to Roberto Rosselini’s war trilogy Rome Open City (Roma citta aperta,1945) Paisan (Paisà, 1946) and Germany, Year Zero (Germania anno zero, 1948), there was the real sense that Fatmir Koçi might be the director to best interpret and express Albania’s singular angst to the West.
Yet Fatmir Koci’s defining statement on the troubled past, present and future of his turbulent Balkan homeland had already been made a little over a half decade earlier. Koci’s black and white Necrology (Nekrologji, 1994) is his seldom seen first feature quite unlike anything produced before or since in the annals of Albanian cinema. By turns illuminating, maddening, lugubrious and thrilling, Nekrology is as dense, complex and contradictory as Albania itself; a dreamy cult-like admixture of the Soviet influences foisted on earnest film students in the Hoxha time melded with the scrambled images of Federico Fellini and Pier Paolo Pasolini secretly glimpsed on late night television.
Rather than explicitly recreate the absolutist insanity of Enver Hoxha’s repressive fiefdom, Koci sets his tale in a medieval wasteland whose specific time period is impossible to pin down. To underline this displacement, Fatmir Koci places his action in the vast museum built during the communist era in honor of Albania’s 15th century national hero, Scanderbeg, in the northern fortress city of Kruje. Placed at the foot of Scanderbeg’s castle, the socialist structure (designed by Hoxha’s daughter) where Koçi sets his grim fairy tale, is used as Julie Taymor contextualized differing historical periods in her 1999 Titus by utilizing Mussolini’s futurist Esposizione Universale Roma (EUR).
The unsettled early years, as Albania emerged from fifty years of intense totalitarian rule, were marked by tremendous economic chaos and social confusion. Fatmir Koci was fully able to capitalize on the disarray inside the former Kinostudio by convincing the powers that be to give him camera equipment along with dozens of rolls of expired East German black and white film stock. The result is an extraordinary amalgam of folk poetry laced with poker-faced Balkan satire, garnished with just a dash of over the top Socialist Realism. Recovering from half a century of intense artistic stagnation, Necrology’s profound fumbling to rediscover Albanian cinema turned out to be a tragic anomaly; the innovative direction the country’s cinema should have taken but ultimately did not.
Just as Albania itself emerged from a hermetic coma, Necrology begins in pitch black darkness. Two candles enter the frame and are united in the garret of the court Artist (none of the characters in the film have identifying names). While Sibelius’ imposing “Finlandia” pounds on the soundtrack, the Artist (played by actor Guljelm Radoja) puts the finishing touches on a likeness of his lover, the radiant Muse. There is a pounding at the door with the heavy metal tip of a spear. The Artist is being summoned to the monolithic stone palace. Once inside the royal chamber, the Artist waits expectantly while the aged King nods in and out of sleep. In the King’s hand is the model of a monument the Artist is preparing. On this orb the image of a horse is seen, the head and hindquarters completed but the stomach unfinished. Quite suddenly, the model falls from the hand of the King and rolls across the floor landing at the Artists feet. The King has died.
Into the hall enters the imperious Queen (portrayed by the popular communist-era actress Rajmonda Bulku). She notices the King is dead but calmly informs the Artist that he is mistaken. The King is only sleeping. Deeply shaken, the Artist exits the hall and collapses on the stone steps in front of the fortress. A bald Court Jester (a magnificently odd performance by Kosovar stage actor Enver Petrovci) plunks himself down next to the Artist and inquires about the state of the King. Surprising even himself, the Artist continues the Queens pretense and concurs that the monarch is sleeping.
The next morning, the Queen appears at a ceremony honoring the Artist and the unfinished equestrian monument. Clearly the towering horse is meant to draw a parallel with the enormous pyramid begun by the Albanian dictator to house all his possessions. And like the pyramid, located in the center of the Albanian capital, the horse monument is the gathering point for all the king’s subjects, including a group of veiled prostitutes, each wearing a number mirroring the recent post-communist phenomena of beauty pageant contestants. The Queen continues to keep up the false notion that the king is alive, telling the crowd they should rejoice in the never-to-be-finished horse statue.
Later, inside the palace, the Queen orders the Jester to remove his comic vestments and begin carrying a heavy casket on his back. Transformed into a coffin seller, the unhappy ex-jester is ordered to not actually sell any coffins since the kingdom is the land where no one ever dies. The Queen’s behavior grows even stranger as she begins gorging herself on both her meal and the absent king’s, takes to wearing a white face mask so as not to see her image in the mirror and has wild sex with her aged chamberlain. Driven to despair by the absurdities of the regime, the Artist attempts to hang himself underneath the horse monument. The Jester turned Coffin Seller stops the Artist by reminding that no one has a reason to die anymore. At dawn, the Artist leaves the kingdom without saying goodbye to the Muse.
Much like the stagnation in Albania at the tail end of the Marxist regime, the subjects continue to trudge through their daily existence, occasionally wondering when the horse monument will ever be completed. The only break the Coffin Seller gets is when one of the wisecracking prostitutes convinces him to put down his casket and seduces him. The Muse discovers she is pregnant with the Artists child. When the child is a toddler, the Muse dies. Shortly thereafter the Artist returns. The Coffin Seller and the Artist commiserate on their unhappy lot beneath the walls of the dank castle. The Artist’s sad reflection on why he was unable to live anywhere else captures the alienation hundreds of thousands of Albanians experienced during the massive migrations to Italy and Greece, occurring just as Necrology began production. When the disbelieving Coffin Seller asks the Artist why he returned to his miserable homeland after journeying to a “land beyond the sun” the Artist mournfully replies, “Because I felt like a foreigner.”
The now rotund Queen meets with the Artist, ordering him to finally complete the monument. The despair of the Artist unable to finish the task begets one of the most hypnotically lyrical scenes in Albanian movies. Just beneath the horse, a black crow is perched on an old book, pages open. The camera pulls back. From the left of the frame, three old musicians, also carrying coffins, make a place for themselves at the monument’s base next to the crow, remove their instruments and begin to play an ancient melody. Leaving their caskets behind, the old men mysteriously rise and depart the scene while the eerie music continues to play on the soundtrack. Fatmir Koçi recalls that the Italian director Gianni Amelio, in the midst of shooting his neo-realist drama about Albania Lamerica (1994), visited the set while Koçi was capturing this scene and was utterly confounded by what he was watching.
The final gathering at the monument finds the Queen arranging a match to test the spear-throwing ability of her warriors. A large wooden heart has been placed where the horse’s stomach ought to be, a target drawn on the center. A spear splinters the wood and blood begins to trickle onto the stone. The Artist has placed himself inside the wood heart and is dead. The final scenes of Necrology find the grieving Coffin Seller wailing over the death of the Artist. There’s a signal moment in the spoken tense of the Albanian dialogue when the Coffin Seller cries out: “The Artist is killed.” The speech form he uses frees everyone from blame; no one appears to be responsible for the Artist’s death. In effect, Fatmir Koçi points a finger at all (even himself) as far as apportioning guilt for the fifty years of entrenched dictatorship. A moment later, a spear flies out from the direction of the palace. The Coffin Seller slumps to the ground, dead.
Little did Fatmir Koçi and his wide-eyed artistic collaborators realize they were in an island of calm before the oncoming storm of national disorder. Perhaps there was a clue of the lawlessness to come following Nekrology’s final all-night shoot inside the castle. When Koci and his crew ventured forth into the morning sun, they discovered the enormous plywood horse used in the film had been carted off in the dead of night.
Ironically the premiere of Necrology took place in Hoxha’s absurd pyramid-shaped museum. Fatmir Koçi recalls nothing but the audience’s stunned silence, perhaps uncomfortable with the medieval metaphor of the not-too-distant past. After garnering an honorable mention at the Montreal film fest and the promise by attendee Oliver Stone that someday the film would find an audience, Nekrology vanished. Though the print and a negative still exists in the moldy Albanian national film archive, the staff was recently unable to locate any production stills only a handful of costume test shots.
In the years that followed, Fatmir Koçi pursued safer paths first with Tirana Year Zero, then with the most expensive Albanian movie ever produced, Time of the Comet (Kohe e Kometes, 2008), a First World War period piece based on a novel by the country’s esteemed novelist, Ismail Kadare. The lamentable turn of Albania’s post-communist cinema can actually be traced in the two decade trajectory of Koçi’s career – from the provocative experimentation of Nekrology to his recent by the numbers Hollywood action thriller Amsterdam Express (2014). Still awaiting proper subtitles and critical re-discovery, the dazzling flashes of brilliance in Necrology remain a link to the genuine possibility of Albanian cinema. Or as the co-director of the 2014 Albanian film Bota, Iris Elezi, exclaimed after watching Koçi’s Necrology recently for the first time: “His quest was pure.”
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Necrology, Albania, 1994
Color, 105 minutes
Director: Fatmir Koçi
Screenplay: Fatmir Koçi
Cinematography: Vladimir Marko, Mihal Rama
Editing: Shazie Kapoli
Production Design: Ilia Xhokaxhi
Sound: Niko Shallo
Cast: Rajmonda Bulku, Sejfulla Myftari, Enver Petrovci, Guljelm Radoja, Romir Zalla, Kastriot Çipi
Production: Alba Film Studio
Fatmir Koçi: Necrology (Nekrologji, 1994)
reviewed by Thomas Logoreci© 2016