Srdan Golubović: The Trap (Klopka, 2007)

reviewed by Aida Vidan © 2009

trapA prize-winner at numerous film festivals and singled out for its technical and narrative qualities, Srdan Golubović’s The Trap follows on a wave of South Slavic films which in their primary thematic orientation focus on some aspect of violence. Although most critics classify Golubović’s second feature (the first one was Apsolutnih sto, The Absolute Hundred, 2001) as a thriller, the category to which in the broadest sense it indeed belongs, it might be more productive to analyze the film as a logical conclusion to the trend that developed in the Balkans in the 1990s.

It is understandable that violence should permeate the works of directors from a region that spent the previous decade engulfed in war and political conflicts. But bundling together all the films that follow this thematic course does not do them justice since one can clearly distinguish between two basic narrative preoccupations: one dealing directly with the recent armed conflicts, the other targeting societal changes that appear to be an immediate consequence of the turmoil that has permanently restructured South-Eastern Europe. Golubović’s film falls in the latter group and triggers memories of at least two other remarkable Serbian features that Milošević’s administration attempted unsuccessfully to prevent from coming to wider attention: Srđan Dragojević's Wounds (Rane) and Goran Paskaljević’s Cabaret Balkan (Bure baruta), both released in 1998.

trapThese two directors densely populate their respective films with scenes of raw violence, placing the spectator directly into the lawless world of the Belgrade underground, which stemmed from and, more often than not, had direct links with above-ground corruption, war-profiteering, and smuggling. Although both films' sphere of reference is Serbia, the war that was raging outside its borders remains hidden in plain view. These works clearly point to the fact that the conflict had metastasized, spreading quickly and uncontrollably from the fronts outside Serbia to the neighborhoods of its capital, and that it had morphed in ways that affected all strata of society.

The impact of corruption and deviant behavior in a post-war period are also the central themes of two other excellent films from the region, Red Dust (Crvena prašina, 1999) by the Croatian director Zrinko Ogresta, and the Bosnian It’s Hard to be Nice (Teško je biti fin, 2007) by Srđan Vuletić. Although the principal characters in these two films had been directly exposed to the war, the focal point is their attempt to escape the claws of lawlessness and become “regular citizens.”

Golubović’s The Trap  thus finds itself in  distinguished company, and the question naturally follows whether (and in which ways) it stands out from this group of films. While Paskaljević’s Cabaret Balkan  andDragojević’s Wounds occupy themselves first and foremost with the world of the mafia, and Red Dust and It’s Hard to be Nice portray individuals forced by circumstances and geography to participate in the war, who are now dealing with its aftershocks. Golubović’s protagonists, a young professional Belgrade couple with a child, are distinctive precisely because of their ordinariness. The principal characters are regular people: they have no links with the underground, they are fairly young and unscarred by the war, they have had a decent education. Put simply, they could be any couple in any country hit hard by economic difficulties. In addition to the sophisticated plot, skillful editing, and finely calibrated camerawork that at times shows more by hiding than exposing, the film’s appeal also lies in the fact that Golubović manages to weave a universal story from a web of very specific circumstances and to ask questions that resonate intensely in a world struck by recession just months after the film was released.

trapThe main characters, Mladen and Marija, do their best to make a living in a problem-ridden economy: they have a daily routine of driving their son to school and going to their now low-paying jobs which still hold hope for a better future; they love one another and care for their delightful son. Unfortunately, this is where unexpected tragedy strikes. Their lives are disrupted when, following a panicked rush to the hospital, it is established that their son suffers from a rare heart condition. Surgery is urgently needed, but the procedure can be performed only abroad, and the insurance doesn’t provide coverage. The young couple desperately looks into all options to put together the necessary 26,000 euros (an astronomical sum in today’s Serbia), but they live in a rented apartment, their companies are not solvent, making them ineligible for a line of credit, and their ancient red Renault looks pitifully outdated next to the expensive cars of the Belgrade nouveau riche. The sympathetic doctor suggests placing an ad, but Mladen is skeptical as the newspapers are full of appeals for help of all kinds. Marija, who is more practically oriented, is willing to try whatever it takes.

As the medical crisis unfolds, the couple does their best to maintain the usual schedule and Mladen keeps running into a wealthy and attractive new neighbor whose daughter shares the same playground and school with his son. Until the medical emergency forced them to think otherwise, Mladen and Marija were for the most part oblivious to the increasing social stratification and the deterioration of their own economic situation. Despite hardships, as long as their family nest was secure, nothing else mattered. Only when they are trapped by their own despair, they start noticing, for instance, that a family whose daughter Marija tutors in English owns a picture frame worth as much as the cost of their son’s surgery. In these sad circumstances they have no choice but to ask a question which no one wants to ask, especially not in reference to one’s own child: How much is a human life worth?

trapBut the irony doesn’t stop here in Golubović’s film, for there are other lives on which a price tag is attached: one afternoon the phone rings and a potential donor insists on meeting Mladen in person. Under the pretense of protecting national interests, a questionable individual offers Mladen the full amount in exchange for a “hit”: executing a business rival. Played superbly by a legend of Yugoslav cinema, Miki Manojlović, the Mafioso-turned-businessmen appears as a disheveled incarnation of the devil himself when he suggests a shocking deal. Although incredulous at first, after a few days Mladen accepts the proposal when his son suffers another heart attack, but only to discover to his horror that the target is the husband of his new friend, Jelena, whom he had met on the playground with her daughter. With his world spinning out of control and his heart sinking, Mladen carries out the hit. He musters the strength to attend the funeral, only to spot the man who ordered the hit among the bereaved and to witness his eventual disappearance. His phone calls go unanswered and the promised money is never delivered. In his Raskolnikov-like obsession with the site of the crime, he ends up helping the new widow when she overdoses on tranquilizers. Having learned about the medical condition of Mladen’s son, she immediately offers to pay for the surgery. In this moment, Mladen’s fate is sealed, for we sense from his refusal that he won’t be able to bear the burden of responsibility for his acts.

This point is also the moral crux of the film since it represents a foreshadowingcommentary on the words of the man who commissioned the murder when Mladen eventually tracks him down and finds out that he has no money to pay for the service he ordered: “The only thing in my life I couldn’t do was kill a man. I don’t understand how a person can do it,” says the shady businessman. Holding the gun, Mladen replies, “Neither do I.” What is particularly disturbing in the world Golubović depicts is the fact that, when pushed against the wall and desperate enough, anyone can cross the thin line separating the criminal world from the non-criminal, but the manner in which people perceive responsibility for their acts differs. Should there be any justification, even sympathy, for a good man who in his misfortune commits a horrible act? Is he the only one to blame? Or is it the society that has closed off all rational options for him equally responsible? These are questions that loom large in the final segment of the film.

trapIn a frenzy of alcohol-induced fog and desperation as his marriage crumbles under the stress of his secret, Mladen ends up in a fist-fight, which lands him in a police station where he readily admits to his crime. But who is going to believe an ordinary guy telling the truth? The guardians of the system are anything but that, and Mladen, who they think is just wasting their time, is released. Abandoned by his wife and having smashed up half of their apartment, he heads to Jelena’s pristine residence. As he ascends the staircase, his movements are shown in a series of frames shot at unusual angles to suggest the circular pattern of events that have brought him to this point. We realize that the “interview-like” scenes with which the film opens and which are interspersed throughout it, are in fact a part of Mladen’s cathartic confession to Jelena. While the deep feelings each of them has for their respective partners shouldn’t be doubted, there is also no question about a subliminal attraction between these two characters. This is expressed particularly strongly in Jelena’s last words to Mladen: “I thought, if I had ever met a good man, that was you. Exactly you.” One can imagine many different versions of this scene, in which these same words could have carried a completely different meaning. But in a world in which there is no redemption, they can mean only one thing.

trapThe film concludes with a scene shot in a bird-eye view showing a street crossing with cars that resemble models in a computer game: Mladen’s old red Renault is next to an all-black expensive automobile, which takes off after a shot, leaving Mladen’s car stranded. We never see Mladen again, but presumably he has been murdered by the dead businessman’s family member. The camera angle is suggestive of predetermination and of an obligation to play by an imposed set of rules in a society that gives the deceitful impression that all lives have the same value.

The film is based on a novel by Nenad Teofilović, and while the moral dilemma of the principal character is portrayed well through both the excellent scripting and Nebojša Glogovac’s superb acting, one wishes both the marital scenes and the angelic role of the little boy could have had a somewhat more elaborate psychological dimension. However, this young director's skillful handling of all the other aspects of the film remains impressive.

Aida Vidan, Harvard University

Klopka, Serbia, 2007
Color, 104 min.
Director: Srdan Golubović
Script: Srđan Koljević and Melina Pota Koljević
Music: Mario Schneider
Director of Photography: Aleksandar Ilić
Production Designer: Goran Joksimović
Editing: Marko Glušac and Dejan Urošević
Cast: Nebojša Glogovac, Nataša Ninković, Anica Dobra, Miki Manojlović
Producers: Jelena Mitrović, Nataša Ninković, Alexander Ris, Jörg Rothe, Laszlo Kantor, Executive Producer: Igor Kecman
Production: Baš Čelik, Mediopolis Film und Fernsehproduktion GmbH, UJ Budapest Film Studio

Srdan Golubović: The Trap (Klopka, 2007)

reviewed by Aida Vidan © 2009

Updated: 30 Aug 09