Srđan Dragojević: St George Shoots the Dragon (Sveti Georgije ubiva aždahu, 2009)

reviewed by Nevena Daković © 2009

stgeorgeSt George Shoots the Dragon  raised the greatest expectations, being announced as a (nation) state project of utmost importance, a stunning regional coproduction (Serbia-Republic Srpska with additional shooting in Bulgaria) and with a budget ranging somewhere between two  and five million euros provided by two governments of former Yugoslavia—the largest sum ever given for one film in Serbia. Furthermore, it is the first film about World War I—an otherwise neglected period of national history but with mythical and hypertrophied emotional feelings. It comes 45 years after the inaugural and so far unique film The March on the Drina (Marš na Drinu). This 1964 film, made with huge financial support from France, as part of the celebration of the fiftieth anniversary of World War I, instantly achieved cult status and is believed to be the best film in the popular oeuvre of Živorad Mitrović. This World War I film, St George Shoots the Dragon  is based on the so-named play of Dušan Kovačević (1984). The excellent stage versions, directed by Ljubomir Draškić and Egon Savin (both in 1986), although very successful, were controversial and stirred much political debate amidst the country’s disintegration and raising nationalism of the late 1980s and 1990s.

The choice of this text as the fifth feature fiction film of Srđan Dragojević is not much of a surprise bearing in mind the paradoxal duality of his oeuvre: teenage comedy hits, We are not Angels I and II (Mi nismo anđeli I, 1992 and Part II in 2005) with  already recognizable intertextuality as stylistic constant,  and narratives exploring historical and social traumas—Pretty Village, Pretty Flame (Lepa sela lepo gore, 1996)and Wounds (Rane, 1998). The combination of factors—two well established author (both playwright and filmmaker), their particular and divergent worldviews, a popular text, Serbia’s turbulent past and present  supporting the concept of  history repeating itself—oblige this reviewer to provide a broad contextual reading of the film both as a text and as a social–historical–cultural phenomenon. However, an analysis of the film’s political, ideological “work”, an evocation of the issues of national identity, history or memory, or an ethical judgment given through its contemporary echoes and allusions should not displace a textual analysis.

stgeorgeThe film narrative spans a period from the First Balkan War (1912-1913) to the early days of World War I and the 1914 battle on the Serbian mountain Cer, considered to be first allied victory. But unlike The March on Drina that treats the topic of war in the macho western style of proud national warriors, Kovačević and Dragojević choose to counterbalance (more clearly and emphatically in the film than in the play) the male world of war and the questions of ethics and power with the female love principle, with both sides in the conflict regarding as imperative, sacrifice and martyrdom as the ultimate proof of love and duty. The young and handsome Gavrilo (Milutin Miloševič), after losing an arm in the Balkan war, proudly and nobly but also in a particularly Serbian self destructive and spiteful manner (the word that comes to mind, “inat” is not directly translatable) renounces the love of his life Katarina (Nataša Janjić). The girl marries the local gendarme Djordje (Lazar Ristovski) —who also saved Gavrilo`s life in the previous war—and an unhappy ménage à trois develops in the picturesque village on the border of Serbia and Austro Hungary. The borderline position is not limited to geography as the story is also carefully placed on the border of war and peace, empires and epochs, genres (historical melodrama and spectacle), local and universal meanings. Life in this village is roiling with passions and tensions—of adulterous couples in love, of healthy and crippled villagers—all of which would be resolved in the final battle.

With the outbreak of WW I all capable and healthy men are mobilized and sent to the front. In the muddy trenches they hear rumors that the “damaged goods”, the men handicapped in the previous war, are flirting and sleeping with the women left behind. In order to prevent mutiny the army officers decide to mobilize the invalids. After the shock of the reunion, the soldiers and the handicapped reinforcements make the “last charge” together. The two rivals, Gavrilo and Djordje, make peace, and with the orphan child Vane carrying the icon of the protector saint on his chest, they all die together, slaying and shooting all “dragons.” Two widows and the survivor Vane drag the dead bodies of the two men through mud and darkness making the last scene an emphatic and symbolic statement about the historical path of the Serbian nation through the rest of XXth and other centuries. The final scene is a return to the Kosovo myth of Serbian nation as a sacrificing, martyr nation and its tradition of “victory in defeat.” The darkness of war hides and envelops the nation naturally like an—beside spring, summer, fall, winter—everlasting fifth season.

stgeorgeThe film’s potential of being a Griffith-like historical melodrama and spectacle--with the heart breaking love story placed against a turbulent and magnificent historical era (like Orphans of the Storm, 1921 or The Birth of a Nation, 1915) is almost completely missed. The romantic narrative line is rendered unconvincing in spite of beautiful shots and the luminous “renaissance” beauty of the actress. The complete lack of chemistry between the doomed lovers and the hardly credible relations of the official husband and wife, create an emotional distance that goes against the demands of melodrama. History told through the prism of romantic, private (hi)story—according to the genre’s meticulously constructed parallels—subverts the significance and glory of the national past. The big scale historical conflict is ironically reduced to a frustrating, vengeful fight of two men for the love of one woman (a recurring motif in Kovačević`s oeuvre). In Kusturica’s Underground (Podzemlje, 1995) the events of the crucial night turn out to be the chase of three men, Marko, Crni and Franz, after Natalija. In Saint George theformer comrades Gavrilo (Archangel Gabriel) and Djordje, (Saint George) in love with same woman, settle the score on the battlefield of the Great War. The further reshaping of war is due to its being waged between members of one nation.  Underground clearly states that there is no war till brother turns against brother. Playing with the motif of fratricide, Dragojević portrays the battle of Cer as three distinctive, densely intertwined confrontations: of love rivals, Gavrilo and Djordje; of the inhabitants - healthy and handicapped—of the divided village epitomizing the Serbian nation as a whole; and eventually of the Serbian and Austro-Hungarian armies in a world conflict.

The historical and national myth deconstructed throughout the whole text (as when the three like the comic-book Dalton brothers encounter the unknown man who is discovered to be Gavrilo Princip who would go on to assassinate Archduke Ferdinand in Sarajevo) and ambivalently restored only in the end, turns out to be a bigger problem than the much criticized absence of spectacular battle scenes. Instead of panoramic and grand mass scenes to be expected after such films as Milestone’s All Quiet on the Western Front, 1930, Borzage’s Seventh Heaven, 1927, Wellman’s Wings, 1927, all dealing with the period, Dragojević votes for a different solution—and not only because of the real budgetary and technical difficulties: short shots, close-ups, flashes of lights in the darkness, like flashes of visions, emotions or national historical memory effectively shaped by this film.  

stgeorgeThe film is haunted by a duality in the conveyed notions of history and nation that surface in spite of all efforts of Kovačević and Dragojević to provide a coherent statement. The connections between the two authors’ discourses in the attempt to coalesce into a universal claim about local history, cross-referencing the past (WWI), the present (replicas and transparent allusion to actual political moment and figures) and the future (global metaphors) are just too awkward. In his drama Dušan Kovačević demonstrates his habitual, profound psychological and anthropological knowledge of the nation. He offers a multidimensional exposure of the historical trauma, war being its epitome, as a collective breaking experience; a destructive shock for the individual and the family; a tortuous past that reveals the pattern of destiny and the time to come. The defining reason for all these conflicts is the Serbian mentality which is described in harsh, painfully real terms but with fundamental benevolence and sympathy for the essentially barbarian but noble spirit. Serbs keep being divided and when they come together, in decisive moments, the only thing they achieve is a tragic and ambivalent dénouement. However, Kovačević keeps open the possibility of healing and coming to peace with ourselves, while Dragojević can not restrain himself from subverting all hope and vehemently preventing any chance for catharsis.

In the complex three layered narrative structure, not even the metanarrative layer (structurally comparable with the film news at the beginning/end of Pretty Village, Pretty Flame) succeeds in providing a coherent, satisfactory closure. The metaphysical perspective is mainly structured around the child Vane and his symbolic appearance in the film’s opening and closure explaining the quintessence of national history according to Kovačević. The national destiny is deserved punishment for the insulting and constant “swearing of God and light” and for the arrogant, antagonistic us-vs-them attitude. In the play, Vane is the chance for survival, the personification of the stoicism of those who would inherit the earth. In the film, his obtrusive but not consistently kept positions of narrative and focalizing agency, or pov, do not express unlimited fascination with or  give the mythical glow to the viewed events (like the child’s perspective in such different films as Cyrano de Bergerac, 1990or Shane, 1953). Even the child’s faith and pure soul cannot soften the brutality of the spectacle or the roughness of the evoked reactions. Catharsis does not come and the dominant melodrama is read like Baluhati’s “failed tragedy”. The collapse of noble, tragic sentiments is evident in the transparent portrayal of veterans in grotesque comic-book Alan Ford style—again quite remindful of Kusturica. Like a tragic chorus in the background, the veterans idly and maliciously gossip in the local cafe (kafana), their skirmishes and brutal outbursts of rage given in graphic naturalism and their conversation overburdened with transparent references to the present day situation. Hard to watch and almost impossible to sympathize with, they ironically devaluate the national portrayal, providing arguments for the extreme right critiques which intentionally (mis)-read film as an insult to the nation and its forefathers.

stgeorgeDragojević’s superb craftsmanship is again recognizable in the fine metacinematic quality of the text. Beside usual intertextuality, postmodern citations, or homage to Leone, Copola etc. the director skillfully builds a broader notion of Saint George. The Saint is not only a mythical warrior and protector saint of the Slavs and of Orthodox Christianity and more specifically a key figure of Balkan beliefs and atavism, but he is also the epitome of cinema and its spirit. He is omnipresent, his visage imaginatively inscribed everywhere: in the figure of Vane playing in the sand, in the shape of the clouds, in the icons carried around illuminated by the lightning and explosions. His name is heard in the sound of falling grenades, in the cry for revenge and in the names of the characters. In an uncanny moment he is recognized in the shape of the stormy clouds while one of the characters (the clairvoyant Gavrilo’s brother and village fool) concludes that the new “thing”—the cinema must look something like this. Through the relation of cinema and Saint George we are allowed to draw our own conclusions about Dragojević’s appearance in a cameo role of the pilot bombing the village fair, i.e. both slaying and shooting the dragon in the Hitchcock-like scene.

stgeorgeThe production design (Miljen Kljaković who also worked with Kusturica) and camera work (Dušan Joksimović) are exceptional and stunning. The acting is very uneven: Bojan Žirović is great as the clairvoyant brother; the famous actor Lazar Ristovski (as the husband) barely manages to restrain his habitual overdone facial expression and gesture; Branislav Lečić repeats his well known theater role; Milutin Milošević’s performance as the hero Gavrilo can not be truly evaluated as he is dubbed, while Predrag Vasić (as the child Vane) is simply brilliant. Textual fissures and a prevailing didactic tone about the key issues of history, nation, and destiny enhance the viewer’s distance from the story and characters. The “damaged” emotional and “healthy” didactic dimension of the text are clearly divided, making professionals cope with the reading in double standards and registers. Some 100,000 cinema goers who have seen the film so far are less disappointed, however, and this underscores the fact that the Serbian audience is eager to see national films. But all the good and quality elements—some of the actors, the set design, the camera work, the original theater play, Dragojevic`s recognizable handwriting—still do not match the quality of the director’s previous work nor the standards established by comparable “nation-state projects” like Underground. The feeling of déjà vu, of having heard and seen all the big truths and concepts better articulated elsewhere weakens the tensions of the plot and is not mended by the emotional richness of melodrama, which is spent in vain here. Bearing in mind the high expectation and big promises, the film is one of failed expectation and not entirely kept promise. Instead of excellent,it is only very good as the dragon is shot and not slain in grand style.

Nevena Daković, University of Arts, Belgrade

St. George Shoots the Dragon, Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina (Republika Srpska), Bulgaria, 2009
Color, 120 minutes
Director: Srdjan Dragojević
Screenplay: Dušan Kovačević(after own eponymous play)
Cinematography: Dušan Joksimović
Costumes: Marina Vukasović-Medenica
Production Design: Miljenko „Kreka“ Kljaković
Music: Aleksandar Randjelović
Cast: Lazar Ristovski, Milutin Milošević, Nataša Janjić, Predrag Vasić, Bora Todorović, Zoran Cvijanović, Bojan Žirović, Dragan Nikolić, Milena Dravić, Srdjan Miletić, Srdjan Timarov
Producers: Dušan Kovačević, Srdjan Dragojević, Milko Josifov, Lazar Ristovski, Biljana Prvanović
Production: Delirium

Srđan Dragojević: St George Shoots the Dragon (Sveti Georgije ubiva aždahu, 2009)

reviewed by Nevena Daković © 2009

Updated: 30 Aug 09