Goran Marković: The Tour (Turneja, 2008)
reviewed by Christina Stojanova © 2009
Goran Marković’s latest film, The Tour (Turneja, 2008) stood out in the rather stiff competition of the 32nd Montreal International Film Festival (21 August – 1 Sept 2008), featuring a number of well-crafted exemplars of mainstream ‘cinema of quality’, and where it most deservedly captured the FIPRESCI prize along with the Best Director Award.
Without shying away from emotions that border on the melodramatic and even the sentimental, or from predictable plot twists, meant to keep the viewers both on edge from fear and melting with pity as Aristotle would have it, Marković invites the audience to search beneath and beyond the emotional excess of his auteur film (based on his own play from the mid-1990s) for “the scene of the underlying drama,” as Peter Brooks has it in his seminal study on melodrama, The Melodramatic Imagination. This “scene of underlying drama” is the “moral occult,” defined by Brooks as the “domain of operative spiritual values… both indicated within and masked by the surface of reality.” In his view, melodrama is a “response to the loss of traditional values” and is bound to re-emerge in times of social or cultural strife. In this sense, The Tour allows for a glimpse into the hidden “spiritual values,” and examines their viability, past and present, in the face of moral ambivalence and brazen evil. And if the melodramatic narratives, dominating the Montreal festival competition screen could also be defined as failed tragedies, whose characters are like us or worse (Aristotle), then—in the context of the tragic-comic narrative of The Tour, where the ethical considerations and comic alienation, or the “ethos” (accentuated by a highly suggestive and even ironic musical score) prevail over the emotional identification (or “pathos”) the characters can be defined as worse than us because of their laughable frailties and all-too-human shortcomings. Paradoxically however, they are also better than us in degree because of their artistic vocation. The domain of the arts has arguably remained the only spiritual hub not yet entirely compromised by the materialist impetus of our civilization, where artists—actors, musicians, painters—still enjoy what is left of the awe once reserved for sages, shamans, mystics and priests. Unlike their predecessors, however, contemporary artists are also increasingly expected to reach far and beyond the walls of their ivory towers and shoulder the problems of their troubled societies.
The Tour seeks to update and popularize these issues within the genre tradition of what could be loosely defined as a “road movie with actors.” It is evidently inspired by such renown works based on the incongruous presence of actors in war zones, like Theo Angelopoulos’s The Travelling Players (O Thiasos, 1975), where a group of Greek provincial comedians criss-crosses the land, witnessing or falling prey to the murderous political and military confrontations tearing the country apart from the late 1930s through the early 50s. Or by the much closer to home For Ever Mozart by Jean-Luc Godard (1996), featuring actors mounting a performance of a French comedy amidst war-torn Sarajevo in the mid-nineties.
The presentation of one of the most harrowing episodes in the recent history of the former Yugoslavia—the war in Bosnia in 1993—through the eyes of six actors on an ill-designed tour across the belligerent zone, serves as the backbone of the film as well as a platform, initiating a process of (inter) national reconciliation and redemption. This approach therefore focuses on the actors’ movement from utter ignorance about a war that seems so distant from their small Belgrade theatre, to first-hand knowledge of its universal bestiality. And what is more—they move towards a painful realization of their moral responsibility and guilt by proxy. There are no bystanders in war and lack of social and spiritual commitment inevitably condemns artists to the mire of creative destitution.
To ensure a powerful cathartic experience for the viewers and facilitate their own voyage to enlightenment, Marković construes his theatre troupe archetypically: an aging diva, an ingénu, two male leads—a young and an old one, a comedian, and the inevitable jack of all trades. The diva is played by the Croatian theatre and movie star Mira Furlan, the ‘sex-symbol’ of the generation fighting the war, and the ingénue—by the charming Jelena Djokić (born in Split, Croatia), while the male cast is all Serbian. Dragan Nikolić, the legend of Yugoslav cinema since the late 1960s, appears as the jaded, seen-better-days aging thespian; popular TV actor Josif Tatić, in charge of the comic relief roles, is the perennially drunk fatso; and young Gordan Kičić is the romantic lover. And finally, well-known actor and producer Tihomir Stanić is the perennial loser, ineffective both on and off stage as entrepreneur and organizer of this unfortunate tour to the front lines of the war. Meticulously selected with ethnic and cultural self-referentiality in mind, this dream cast (including the producer, the famous Makavejev actor Svetozar Cvetković in a small role) is a nostalgic intertextual reminder of the thriving Yugoslav cinema as arguably one of the few truly federal institutions of former Yugoslavia, and of the fellowship of its actors and actresses as an example of ethnic and religious tolerance.
The plot-driven narrative is designed in a linear fashion and is therefore pleasurably predictable. After its departure from Belgrade in a weird multi-purpose paramilitary vehicle along the ‘corridor’ to Krajina, the Serbian enclave in Bosnia and Herzegovina, the troupe repeatedly escapes death at the hands of all the belligerent factions, who look surprisingly identical: the Serbian army, the Croatian army, the Serbian paramilitaries, and the Muslim insurgents all sport the same war fatigues, speak the same language, and what is remarkable—share the same admiration for the actors they have grown up watching on TV and in cinemas! And yet none of them succeeds in scoring any points in favour of either their readily declared appreciation of the arts or their—mostly undeclared but allegedly noble cause.
Initially, the travelling troupe naively believe that they could get away from this inferno not only with their lives intact but also with a round sum of money, in exchange for their rather lame and even ridiculous performances in a classical (and boring) patriotic play called The Death of Stefan Dechanski (Smrt Stefana Dečanskog)by Jovan Sterija Popović, describing the final days in the life of the eponymous Serbian king. Increasingly however, their physical survival comes to depend on the quality of their acting, which turns out to be the biggest challenge for this spoiled, cynical, and mostly uninspired lot. Kicked out in the cold and later detained by the Croatian army, they put their lives in the hands of the Croatian diva and her clumsy attempts to muster some charming smiles along with excerpts from Croatian nationalist lore to please the commander. She however fails to impress him and when the troupe is just about to meet a most horrible death in the mine-fields they are forced to cross, the Serbian paramilitaries come to the rescue. Which again turns to be a mixed blessing as their crazed commander makes them watch and sing while a Croatian soldier gets blown up by a mine. (The paramilitaries and their commander are tailored after the infamous Serbian paramilitary unit the Tigers and their late commander, Arkan). The hopes of the troupe are propped up soon thereafter when they are treated to a royal welcome in the fortress-like home of a war profiteer, a typical representative of the only winners in this ludicrous war. But Zaki the fatso blows it all in an alcohol-inspired improvisation: in paradoxical anticipation of more booze, he bravely lets their nouveau riche host in on the unflattering thoughts he has of the man’s prosperity, his wife and even of the man himself. And when the bodyguards jump on him, he screams “Do not beat me, I am only an actor,” echoing somewhat parodically the words of Istvan Szabo’s prototypical conformist, Hendrik Hoefgen, the star of the Third Reich theatre (Mephisto, 1981, Hungary) uttered in a fickle attempt to exonerate his moral frailty in the name of art.
The troupe’s artistic investment finally rises to the occasion when in the face of inevitable death, surrounded by determined Muslim fighters, the ingénue recites passionately a monologue from Euripides’ Iphigenia. Hersuperb delivery of a text prophetically relevant to the dire situation they are in suggests eloquently that real art is indeed a question of life and death. And while Jadranka’s moving performance secures the troupe’s safe passage to Belgrade, the servile nationalist poetry of a second rate Serbian writer who has meanwhile joined them on the road, takes him directly to the firing squad.
The Tour is strongly remindful of yet another great film by a Serbian director, Slobodan Sijan’s Who’s Singing Over There? (Ko to tamo peva, 1980), another winner at the Montreal World Film Festival (1981). The film’s characters, a socially and ethnically mixed bag of passengers on board the rickety bus of Krstić & Son, are also travelling to Belgrade on the eve of another major catastrophe—the beginning of WWII. Unlike Marković’s troupe, however, they remain oblivious to the pending disaster and, while engulfed in petty, divisive and idiosyncratic quarrels, become surprisingly unanimous in victimizing the two Gypsy musicians on the bus. But when the Germans bomb them into smithereens, the Gypsies are the only ones to survive, encapsulating the moral of the film in their final song, sadly foreboding of events yet to come:
Misfortune is my childhood lot
And in suffering I sing my song,
Wishing, oh my mother dear
That a dream was all this here
Sijan’s musicians and Marković’s actors endure because their art obliges them to see through the occulted domain of spiritual values and into the future, enhancing the redemptive power of their and our cathartic experience, “purging us of our emotions and reconciling us to our fate” (Aristotle). The troupe does return to the safety of their theatre, deeply shaken and transformed by the initiating voyage, but there is something ominously foretelling when Djuro, the driver (Slavko Štimac) refuses the invitation to spend the night in Belgrade with them: “I don’t like your Belgrade,” he says. The year is still 1993, almost six years away from the bombings in March 1999.
Christina Stojanova, University of Regina, Canada
Aristotle, Poetics, trans. S.H. Butcher, Hill & Wang, 1961.
Brooks, Peter, The Melodramatic Imagination, Yale UP, 1976.
The Tour, Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, 2008
Color, 102 min.
Director and Scriptwriter: Goran Marković
Director of Photography: Radoslav Vladić
Composer: Zoran Simjanovicć
Production Design: Veljko Despotović
Sound: Branko Neskov
Cast: T. Stanić, J. Djokić, D. Nikolić, M. Furlan, J. Tatić
Production: Testament film (Serbia); Balkan Film (Bosnia and Herzegovina)
Goran Marković: The Tour (Turneja, 2008)
reviewed by Christina Stojanova © 2009