10 September 2009

Krstic and son bus company

This is the opening scene of - the one and only - Ko to tamo peva (transl. Who is singing over there). Everyone from the former Yugoslavia will instantly recognize this film, for it was at the very heart of Yugoslav cinema. Filmed by Slobodan Šijan in 1980 (based on a script by a playwright Dušan Kovačević), this film is equally beloved by filmmakers, elitist film critics and the public. In the mid-nineties, Serbian filmmakers voted it the best Yugoslav film of all time.

The beginning of April 1941. Several characters are waiting for the unpredictable Krstić and son bus driving to Belgrade. These people (with the exception of Krstić and his son) remain nameless throughout the film: a singer, a WW1 veteran, a hunter, a patient and a Germanophile are later joined by a bride and a groom. Two Gypsy singers – the magic people of the Balkans - act as a chorus that sets the pace and the rhythm of this crazy road movie.

Just like in other films posted this week, the characters – at least before they reach Belgrade - have nowhere to escape to. In Život je lep, a train driver stops the train and refuses to take passengers to its true destination. The passengers are forced to make do with a local kafana, where hostile locals hang out. The kafana might just as well be flying through the sky: you either stay or you jump through the window. The desires of Jovana Lukina implode in her village damp with evil. Goluža is forced to stay in a tavern on his way to the seaside. Unable to pay for his stay, Goluža appeals to the good heart of the innkeeper claiming that he chose this village as a venue to kill himself. The word spreads. Just like the dance of Jovana Lukina, just like the singing of Sonja Savić in Život je lep, the suicide-to-be is the event of choice, destined to become village folklore, a fairy tale, a sacrifice.

In Ko to tamo peva, the passengers are for a short time completely isolated from the fatal changes that take place in the real world during the very time that they travel. While a unique comedy from the onset, and on the surface, the real pace of Ko to tamo peva – its captivating rhythm – is driven by the chorus and runs underneath the visible comic layer. The effect is unnerving: the audience wants to laugh its heart out, but the laughter will bring no release as the tension (built up by the Gypsies’ maledictions) rises unstoppably.

Note that the ending scene in Ko to tamo peva is not shot as originally scripted; the scripted scene - a piece of absurd cinema - was prohibited by the Belgrade authorities in the face of Tito’s death. The Krstić and son bus should have, upon its arrival to Belgrade, met with wild animals that escaped from the bombed Belgrade zoo.

This gem of a scene - the true ending to Ko to tamo peva - was borrowed by Kusturica in the beginning scene of Underground, as a (rather poor) homage to Šijan and Kovačević.

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