The Aesthetics of Paranoid Realities in The Land of Truth, Love and Freedom and South by South-East by Milutin Petrović

By Ivana Kronja (Belgrade)

© Ivana Kronja, 2009

Milutin Petrović (b. 1961) is the most distinguished and practically the only representative of the independent auteur cinema in Serbia.[1] Petrović has something that can be called a rich pop biography behind him. He graduated film directing from Belgrade’s Faculty of Dramatic Arts (FDU). Himself a member of a pop band Heroes (Heroji),he directed music videos for other bands in the 1980s; he directed the TV show Popovanje, dedicated to urban culture; in the 1990s he directed a theatre production of a cult musical, Trinidad, and shot ads for the Saatchi & Saatchi agency. He completed a documentary Special Upbringing (Specijalno vaspitanje, 1987), the TV-series Home, Sweet Home (Dome, slatki dome) and a TV movie, Telephomania (Telefomanija).

Petrović’s feature debut The Land of Truth, Love and Freedom (Zemlja istine, ljubavi i slobode, 2000), in which he served as director, co-writer and co-producer, is nominally a war drama which won several prizes. The most distinguished is the Fassbinder Prize at the 49th Mannheim-Heidelberg International Film Festival, after which Petrović won a Jury Prize at the Sochi Film Festival, the Grand Prix of the 7th Festival of Auteur Cinema in Belgrade, the FIPRESCI prize for the best Yugoslav film in 2000, as well as a prize for the screenplay at the Festival of Screenwriting in Vrnjacka Banja. The next Milutin Petrović feature, the political psycho-thriller South by South-East (Jug-jugoistok, 2005), was also noticed in Serbia and abroad, even though, in our view, it did not have enough exposure, especially in our midst. That is why we will dedicate an extensive analysis to this film. In his latest work, Agie and Emma (Agi i Ema, 2007), Petrović has turned to a genre rarely seen within the new Serbian cinema—children’s movies—managing to keep his auteur’s signature in that project as well.

The Aesthetics of Paranoid Realities
All of Petrović’s films appear to be easily understood at first sight, but it turns out they are extremely complex both in meaning and in artistic method. One could say that a motif of paranoid realities runs in more or less obvious form through all three films. As far as aesthetic treatment goes, they are molded by carefully thought-out postmodernist technique both in writing and directing.

land of truthIn The Land of Truth, Love and Freedom the story takes place in three separate time periods, that is, in three separate planes of reality. The first is established at a Belgrade lunatic asylum during the 1999 bombing. A young man (Boris Milivojević), ex-editor of the Radio Television of Serbia’s regime-backed propaganda, is taking a Rorschach test. His co-sufferer is an ex-communist executioner, Rade, played by Rade Marković, whose memories are “played” by excerpts from a film The Miraculous Sword (Čudotvorni mač) by Vojislav Nanovic, 1956). In that film—in which Marković also stars—a knight wins a tournament and the princess’ hand in marriage. These excerpts from The Miraculous Sword create the third, most distant plane of reality.

The young man is tormented by guilt because of the service he has done for the regime, and the psychiatrists are having a hard time making his diagnosis. While bombs are falling, to the horror of doctors and patients, a sympathetic doctor Vanja (a real-life model and a university graduate with a degree in psychology, Vanja Govorko) gives the test to the young man. Looking at cardboard with blotchy images, the young man starts to construct a fictional story, which comes to life in front of our eyes. In that, second plane of reality, the main characters are young people who live double lives: a student, Biljana (Biljana Srbljanović, playwright) and a student, Djordje (Djordje Andjelić, musician), a married woman, Mirela (Mirela Pavlović, actress) and a family man Milutin (Milutin Petrović, the director himself). They use these social roles as a front in order to indulge in crimes—prostitution and murder.

The two pals, Djordje and Milutin, are contract killers, who call their routine “scenarios.” They kill their best friend, “Fatso” (Milorad “Debeli” Milinković, himself a filmmaker). Out of pity, Djordje treats Fatso to a visit by a prostitute from the agency “Penguin,” which is a fake boutique. That is how Djordje finds out that his girlfriend, Biljana, is a “whore” and kills her on the spot. As the end of the film is approaching, we see that the hospital personnel are actually characters from the young man’s story. The film’s finale, in which the young man “enters” the idyllic green fields (analogous to similar space at the end of The Miraculous Sword) where he meets the now “good” Biljana, is escapist. The young couple stays together with blessings from old Rade who adds: “Now, children, you know what the sharpest weapon is—the Truth.” The film closes with a medium-close up shot of the young man, who thumbs his audience along with an impudent expression on his face. Does that mean “You will never learn the truth?!?”

In South by South-East, which is, according to the filmmaker, a Balkan answer to Hitchcock’s classic, North by Northwest, a famous ex-Yugoslav actress, Sonja Savić, comes from Slovenia to Belgrade in search of her abducted child. A police inspector is involved in this affair, together with members of the highest echelons of the community—from secret services to the politicians in office, spies, foreign diplomats and domestic ministers.

Both films deal with the theme of multiple realities and manipulation of reality, which cuts through all layers of events, from the general and the political to the personal. What is a dream, and what is reality? What is a fact, and what is a fabrication? Which side is conspiring, and, finally, who is crazy and who is sane? The matter becomes more complex due to Petrović’s use of authentic public personalities who keep their own names in both films.

agie and emmaInterestingly, the third Petrović film, Agie and Emma,[2] raises questions about conflicting realities and uses extra-filmic references. The two basic realities which are confronted in this film are the world of children and the world of adults. A lonesome boy Agie (Stefan Lazarević) meets Emma (Milena Dravić), a lively old lady in whose special world all those freedoms, joys and thoughts that belong to the world of children are still alive. In good measure, this is also a film for adults, a film about the transition of a society into a market economy and individualism, about social stratification and the dominance of an emotionally cold, bureaucratic elite that Agie’s parents belong to. Milena Dravić, one of the most renowned Yugoslav and Serbian actresses, as Emma, while riding in a bus on the way to the Wax Museum, tells little Agie: “This is where Wax People live.” She points her finger to the Parliament building (which “acts” the role of the museum in question, which, by the way, does not exist in Belgrade).
The meaning of these paranoid, parallel realities in Petrović’s films has a dual origin. Firstly, in spite of the obvious narrative stylization and  the filmmaker’s inclination towards formalism, reflected in the film’s accented, easily deciphered  structure, Petrović’s films are directly engaged and socially critical. Emphasizing conspiracy as a principle of reality, Petrović and his co-writers, Petar Jakonić in the first and Saša Radojević in both films, offer an open critique of the political manipulations, corruption and the collapse of  moral values, all of which have shaken the new, globalized world order as well as a tiny part of it, the Serbian society.

In a political sense these films are a testimony to an era that s collapsing (Tito’s Socialist Yugoslavia and post-Titoist Yugoslavia) and the vacuum which is created between it and the time yet to come. That vacuum is filled with uncertainty and a free flow of different ideologies, which, when combined, result in chaos and destruction (Serbia in the 1990s). On the other side of this abyss there is, however, the globalizing face of capitalism, which ruthlessly imposes its own rules. Petrović’s films are set precisely in this interspace at the end of the authoritarian government, the "idyllic" time of socialism, and the uncertain world future. “There are no more texts which could be defined by a single cultural and political orientation; nowadays, other kinds of texts are created, in which a variety of influences are appearing like actors on a scene who, through processes of discovery and rediscovery are establishing new identities” (Falkowska 1998: 133). Precisely this plurality of texts, in constant search for a stable identity which, of course, is missing, is an essential attribute of Petrović’s work. Perhaps that is why Petrović, in his third film, strives to find refuge in a children’s fairy tale, which is also permeated with a melancholy of an adult spiritual emptiness. The grim neighborhood where Agie’s temporary abode (but not home) is located, the deserted bare ground in front of Emma’s “castle in Spain,” are also reminders of the ideological desert and devalued political conceptions of the Yugoslav-Serbian past, now replaced by liberal capitalism and  the global “end of history.”

On the other hand, the theme of reality as an uncertain and elusive category—that is, the impossibility of establishing true reality—is typical for postmodern theory and art, to which Petrović’s films stylistically belong. The following elements make the first two works by Petrović emphatically postmodern: several parallel courses of action which include the same characters with different identities; versions of events which exclude each other; presenting the black and white sides of a hero with equal plausibility (contrary to the usual “good” vs. “bad” guys); emphasizing the film’s form and structure; mixing  black and white with color images; quotes and paraphrases of Hollywood classics in a modified, Balkan context; extending the meaning of a film by employing personalities from  public life who bear their own names in it, apart from the use of professional actors, and so forth.

Petrović and Radojević keep reminding us of the nature of cinema as a means of representation, and ‘the presence of the absent’ which it brings. This is achieved in an extremely unusual way.  The leading roles in both films are given to Serbian film directors of both a younger and older generation: Milutin Petrović, Milorad Milinković in The Land of Truth, Love and Freedom; Milutin Petrović, Puriša Djordjević, Radivoje Raša Andrić, Srdan Golubović in South by South-East, while the screenwriter and critic Saša Radojević, the manager of the Yugoslav Cinematheque Dinko Tucakovic, and film actress Sonja Savic, who plays herself, all act in the invented narrative of South by South-East. This directly points to what theoreticians Jean-Louis Boudry, Christian Metz and others call “cinematographic apparatus,” which comprises everything from social and economic spheres, the technical base and conditions of screening, to the film itself as a text and the “mental machinery” through which a viewer accepts the concept of cinema (Kaplan 2000: 12 and Nevena 2006: 291-303). Frequent professional discussions on the fine points of cinema history (led by the editor from The Land of Truth, Love and Freedom and psychiatrist from South by South-East),[3] as well as the frequent recalling of films, the quoting of film scenes, even the singing of film music by many characters (from killers in The Land of Truth, Love and Freedom to Djordjević in South by South-East)—all contribute to the same effect.

Apart from real people and the stories from the world of cinema, Petrović gives a number of dramatic parts to persons who carry some weight in the local context. They stand for the political and cultural allegiance to the “urban” and “pro-western,” in contrast to the isolationist, politics of Milošević. He thus manages to deconstruct our usual notions of the “real,” showing us existing reality as a film, and our everyday reality as fiction. In South by South-East a psychiatrist explicitly says: “That is the biggest problem: reality does not exist, there are just films that nobody watches.”

south south eastSouth by South-East’s tagline was: “It is not a question whether you are paranoid, but whether you are paranoid enough.” This tagline inverts our usual concept of normality and proclaims paranoia a legitimate and even preferred state of consciousness. A scene with a lecture given by a British Balkanologist at Belgrade’s Faculty of Philosophy, placed almost in the middle of the film, also refers to that. The man elaborates the course of Serbian and Balkan history between the 19th century and today as an obscure rotation of the uprisings of warlords, kings and dynasties, followed by bloody assassinations and the suspicious involvements of the secret services, all the way to the assassination of premier Djindjic. It is a paradox that precisely this story, which tells us that any explanation is equally possible, is used here as a cornerstone, as a narrative matrix which gives us a sense of security. Around that pivot a nostalgic-paranoid plot thickens.

Both versions of the story— first, about Sonja who imagines that she has a child with a minister, and the old socialist Secret Service which uses that fact to put the regime under pressure; an second, about Sonja who really has a child with the minister (or perhaps with the President himself), a child abducted by foreign secret services—are equally functional; the filmmaker favors neither version. Essentially, the film has two endings: Sonja who gains freedom for herself and her daughter, and Sonja who ends up in a lunatic asylum.

Mysterious players (the filmmaker Puriša Djordjević, Sonja’s “brother” who is a famous terrorist) are being killed or exposed, while state servicemen (policemen, the minister) keep their positions. A tabloid TV-show at the end of the film, done as a music video with puppets made in the likeness of the politicians and players in the story, shows the real face of globalization and the economy of manipulation, where every serious subject is turned into a daily entertainment spot. A puppet of Boris Tadić, who would go on to win re-election in February 2008 as president of Serbia, is prophetically dominant in this video from this 2005 film. However, the key to the film does not lie in the plot, which, by itself, could be fairly simply defined as "‘post-socialist thriller." The filmmakers strive to resist the ideology of post-socialism.[4] The key to the film is found in the deconstruction of woman as  symbol of nation, in, according to Lacan, the /real/ woman who does not exist, or, in Foucault’s language, a woman “gone mad” as a nation gone mad.

In the heart of the plot but also in the center of the film’s iconography, is the icon of Yugoslav urban film from the 1980s, the actress Sonja Savić (played by Sonja Savić herself). The profiling of Sonja’s character is extremely complex and works as a symbol on several levels which interact with each other. Here Sonja Savić is an embodiment of the socialist Yugoslavia, a memory of “the golden 1980s” and the sheltered life led in the former state. On the other hand, she is “clairvoyant” and, standing in a tunnel at the beginning of the film, she “sees” the upcoming misfortunes and murders that would take place after Yugoslavia’s break-up—the abduction and death of the politician Ivan Stambolić, his mafia-style murder, the assassination of Zoran Djindjić. Thus, as a witness of the suppressed truths, she also represents an embodiment of the current, devastated Serbia.

Finally, Sonja is a mother, who fights for her female child. Thus the doubling of the gender of mother and child presents Sonja as the archetypal mother figure, a symbol of the nation. Throughout the history of art and religion an image of woman, especially mother, appears as a mighty psychological symbol. Representing a nation with a female figure is also one of the conventions in political iconography: apart from the visual representation, a female character as a “motherland” symbolizes unity and the “natural” role of the nation as the mother to all of “us” (Minic 2004: 50).

The symbolism of Sonja as motherland is underscored at the very beginning of the film, when she enters Ivan Mestrović's imposing war monument on Avala, representing the vitality and strength of the Balkan woman. The eight gigantic figures of women are there to symbolically compensate for the death of the warriors in the two Balkan wars and the First World War, and to give hope for new births. The eight Caryatides are mothers, wearing traditional dresses representing the various regions and peoples of Yugoslavia.[5] But that symbol is deeply endangered when, running away, Sonja arrives for a meeting arranged at the Kalemegdan Fortress, the most important Belgrade site[6] with a thousand-years-old history. There she meets the male statue of the Victor, also the work of Mestrović, a well-known symbol of Belgrade, erected after the World War One in 1918. In one moment, a biplane used for crop spraying becomes a macabre flying object that attacks Sonja, in a postmodern quote of the notorious scene from North by Northwest (1959, Alfred Hitchcock). At the film’s very end, after the music video, Sonja ends up in the lunatic asylum, together with the hero of Petrović’s previous film.

What is most interesting in this film and continually fascinating is that the woman as “nation” is systematically located in the context of architecture, which means both culture and history. Through Sonja and her search/flight we go through all the key phases of the historical meanderings of the Serbs in the 19th and 20th centuries. From the beginning to the end of the film the heroine (whose identity is broader than just an individual one), is systematically bound to key topoi and monuments of urban architecture: the Monument to the Unknown Hero on Avala; the destroyed Avala TV Tower (bombed by NATO forces in 1999), an architectural miracle and once the pride of Belgrade; Hotel Moscow on Belgrade’s main street; the Kalemegdan Fortress and statue of the Victor; the Army Headquarters Building also demolished during the NATO bombing in 1999 and, finally, a very modern glass building in Belgrade's beautiful walking street, as Serbia of the future. This complex iconic construction of the film with the archetypal image of woman given through places of huge symbolic meaning have a direct impact on the Serbian viewer’s subconscious. Here, one should single out exquisite photography of Predrag Bambić.

The idea of “woman-nation,” carried through symbols of the ideology of “yugoslavism” found both in the Kingdom of Yugoslavia and in socialist Yugoslavia, and through symbols of the defeated Serbian nationalism, is then deconstructed, decomposed and left open. The authors are offering us two choices: one is positive, and can be found in the appreciation of the female principle, the principle of life, extended to a female child. The other offers an image of the nation converted from heroic mother into a woman “gone mad,” into a body of a “non-existent” nation which has “gone mad.” It is a nation which is searching for its identity because it cannot determine itself historically and politically. On top of the filmmakers’ demonstrated screenwriting and directing mastery in almost impeccably assembling the film’s material—following their postmodern aesthetics, their ideological and critical ideas—the cultural meaning of the city as symbol of national identity in perpetual genesis, and woman as the soul of the nation and the city, rounds out the auteurist vision of South by South-East in an innovative and culturally far-reaching manner, rarely seen in Serbian cinema.

Translated by Goran Gocić with Vida Johnson


1] This means independent in his sources of financing (which are by and large outside film industry and state funds), smaller budget and, in the first place, artistic procedure that is investigative, close to art-house cinema and often socially critical.

2] The screenplay, signed by Milutin Petrović, is based on a novel for children of the same name by a Serbian writer Igor Kolarov.

3] The psychiatrist, moreover, exposes the major sources for South by South-East, where elements of plot and scenes are quoted from North by North-West and Bunny Lake is Missing, saying to the inspector: “it is like your story.” With such a postmodern intervention it is as if the film explains itself, that is, refers to its own references within itself.

4] The Slovene theorist Marina Grzinic is interpreting the projects of three artists from ex-Yugoslavia as works which often assume an attitude towards “post-socialist” ideology, which in works of artists from the Eastern Europe often takes a form of “non-existence on the margins” (Grzinic 2005: 241).

5] On the east side of the Mausoleum are women from Hercegovina, Macedonia, Bosnia and Dalmatia, and on the west side are women from Croatia, Slovenia, Montenegro and Serbia (see Corovic 2002: 212). The monument, a part of a whole memorial complex, is executed in dark granite from Jablanica. It is a work of a famous Yugoslav and Croatian sculptor Ivan Mestrovic (1883-1962).

6] This fortress, which is composed of many historical levels (starting with ancient history) and a large number of monuments, is placed at the junction of two rivers, Sava and Danube, giving an exceptional view.

Works Cited

Corovic, Ljubica, “Vodic kroz Beograd,” Belgrade: Kreativni centar, 2002.
Dakovic, Nevena, Pojmovnik teorije filma  in Omon, Z., and A. Bergala, M. Mari, M. Verne, Estetika filma, Belgrade: Clio, 2006.
Falkowska, Janina, “Postmodernist Condition in Post-Socialist Eastern European Films: The Case of a Political Pastiche and the Socialist-Hollywood Thriller in Recent Films of Polish Filmmakers,” in Degli-Esposti, Cristina (ed.), Postmodernism in the Cinema, New York-Oxford: Berghahn Books, 1998.
Grzinic, M, “Avangarda i politika: Istocnoevropska paradigma i rat na Balkanu,” Belgrade: Beogradski krug, 2005.
Kaplan, E. Ann, Women & Film: Both Sides of the Camera, London and N.Y.: Routledge 2000.
Minic, Danica, Nacija i pol u patriotskom spotu BK televizije, in “Genero: Zene i mediji,” 2004.