Tuesday, February 14, 2012

In CIRKUS COLUMBIA, award-winner Danis Tanovic revisits a country about to shatter

If you don't already know one of the world's great actors -- Miki Manojlovic (When Father Was Away on Business, Underground, Black Cat White Cat, Cabaret Balkan, the recently-released here Largo Winch and so many more) -- you certainly will once you've seen CIRKUS COLUMBIA, the new film from Danis Tanovic (of the Oscar-winning No Man's Land). TrustMovies can't think of another actor from any country who could handle so readily, blithely, without missing a beat, what Mr. Manojlovic, shown below, manages here. This prime example of weighty, jowly charisma takes his character, Divko, on an arc that appears to begin with a nasty, unfeeling, misogynistic fellow (watching him, the word pig immediately comes to mind) and by the finale has turned him into a man you love and understand so well that you'd trust him with your life. Talk about an impressive acting turn!

The remainder of the cast is impressive, as well: Mira Furlan as Divko's wife, Lucija (shown in the three final photos, below), whom he has long ago left behind him; Boris Ler as his son, Martin (shown at left, three photos below), on the cusp of manhood whom Divko barely knows; and especially a relative newcomer named Jelena Stupljanin, who plays Divko's current mistress, Azra. (The filmmaker has managed to age Ms. Stupljanin -- shown on poster, top, and at right, three photos below -- quite well, so that she looks younger than Divko, but a good deal older than than Martin; in actuality she and Mr. Ler are but three years apart.)

In addition to telling a crackerjack story whose themes of family and responsibility resound throughout, director/adaptor (from the novel by Ivica Djikic) Tanovic (shown at left) has done something risky and difficult that pays off mightily: He opens his film just days before the outbreak of the war for the former Yugoslavia. For those of us over here who remember reading how ghastly and impossible it seemed that neighbors were bent on destroying neighbors with whom they had lived (and even loved) peaceably for decades, it might seem almost too much to bear -- having to experience something like this all over again. Early on, an admirer of Lucija's warns her of the fighting to come, and she slaps it away with such assurance: We're friends, neighbors. We lived together for so long. Moments like this are not just ironic but heart-wrenching.

The filmmaker beautifully juggles the family tension with the oncoming war and the "lucky cat" of Divko's that suddenly goes missing (above). He also manages the romantic "dance" that his characters engage in with rather amazing finesse, given what happens between the early scene (in a gas station) and the final one in a deserted carnival/playground. Things change pretty drastically here, and yet we buy it, thanks in part to the terrific performances and in another part, TM thinks, due to the Balkan setting of the film.

I've never been to any of the Balkan countries, but after seeing so many films set in that part of the world, I am temped to say that the people who live there are real suvivors (unlike that friend of mine whose fingernail recently broke, and badly, and who told me after a grueling day, "Well, I managed: I'm a survivor). Because these Balkanites seem to die too often and too easily, they also seem to know how to live, grabbing what they can when they can. And so it is in Cirkus Columbia, the Bosnia/Herzegovina submission for last year's Best Foreign-Language Film. (It ought to have been at the very least short-listed!)

Tanovic is particularly good at ratcheting up the suspense, even as he's making us care more and more about his characters (that's Manojlovic, below, right, with Ler, center, and Ms Furlan). It seems to me that the movie places the major blame for the outbreak of hostilities with the Serbs, though the filmmaker does not let the Croats off that easily, either (Or are they Bosnian? Though Bosnia did not then even officially exist). In any case, there is plenty of blame to go around.

By the finale, the movie seems to be a kind of fable about the war and this place and the people in it. The sentiment expressed by the closing scene is not, I think, sentimental, though it offers one of the most exquisitely deep and touching moments I have experienced in the cinema in some time. In a single visual, it acknowledges family, life, love and, yes, death. The year is young, but I can't imagine that Cirkus Columbia won't be among the best films to open here in 2012. (If there are a lot of better ones, then, movie-wise, we're in for one hell of a good year.)

From Strand Releasing, and running 113 minutes, the movie opens this Friday, February 17, in New York City at the Quad Cinema, and in Los Angeles on Friday, March 9 at Laemmle's Music Hall 3. I would hope for further openings throughout the country. Whatever happens, if you do not catch it in theaters, keep this one on your DVD and/or streaming list.


As we left the press screening for Cirkus Columbia, a few of us critics were greeted with a very nice surprise. One of the movie's stars --  Jelena Stupljanin -- was standing, talking with a friend, as we left the screening room. Something like this almost never happens at the press screenings, and so we were initially taken aback to see a character we'd just been involved with on-screen suddenly standing before us, off-screen. Ms. Stupljanin could not have been sweeter and more welcoming, however, offering a friendly chuckle at our surprised confusion.

Her English is quite, quite good, and we were able to have a short conversation with her before going on our way. The actress, who lives here in the U.S. now, was delighted at how much we'd enjoyed the film and pleased that we understood how sad and difficult it was to return to those horrible times of two decades past. She also told us that she is now working with a theater company here in New York (the Rising Phoenix Repertory).

We made it clear to her how much more beautiful she seems off screen than on (that's she two photos above, and above, right, with her co-star, Ms Furlan, flanking their director, Mr. Tanovic), and she explained to us that the filmmaker had wanted to age her so that her character would seem to be somewhere between the age of the father and his son in the movie. They did a fine and very believable job of it, we told her. Not wanting to take up too much of her time, we moved along, but we will in future certainly follow her career with much interest. For those readers who might want to learn more about Jelena, her website can be found here.

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