Belle Epoque

Belle Epoque

****

Reviewed by: Jeff Robson

There can be few movies where the story behind its making and release are as compelling as the on-screen narrative, but Stojanovic's tragicomic take on the events leading up to Archduke Ferdinand’s assassination in 1914 is one of them.

First begun 17 years ago, the film remained hidden away and uncut throughout the conflict in former Yugoslavia, preserved by Bosnian director and film historian Bakir Tanovic in his Sarajevo home. Now, after being painstakingly reassembled and edited, it received a British premiere at this year’s Raindance Film Festival.

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It’s a remarkable story, but this is a film that needs no special pleading. The background adds an extra poignancy to the themes of a country straining to be free from an artificially imposed ‘unity’ and the personal compromises sometimes necessary to survive in turbulent times, but Stojanovic resists the temptation to draw heavy-handed parallels or be excessively judgemental. And this is no abstruse, arty ‘historical document’ of a film; at heart, it’s a good tale, well-told.

It begins in Sarajevo in 1910. Anton Walitz (Davor Janjic) is a young man from a well-to-do background and looking forward to his engagement to a suitable match. But he is also fascinated by the arrival of the motion picture camera to the city, and a childhood sweetheart is urging him to become more involved in the struggle to liberate Bosnia from the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

The film takes the real-life historical figure of Walitz and uses his experiences as a springboard for a fictional history of the years leading up to the outbreak of World War One (the Belle Epoque of the title) through the eyes of a varied and vibrant cast of characters.

There are echoes here of the classic period dramas of Bernado Bertolucci and Luchino Visconti, such as The Leopard and 1900, but the film also has a playfully bawdy, burlesque streak that owes as much to vintage Sergio Leone. Anton’s family’s prosperity is based on the fact that the hotel owned by his mother is also a brothel and cabaret venue. His story is one of conflict between the creative impulse, represented by the moviemakers and his frustrated poet father (who we eventually learn committed suicide), and the pragmatism of his mother, who is conducting an affair with the local police chief in order to stay secure and well-informed.

On a visit to Vienna, Anton finds that his engagement is unequal to the temptations offered by the Bohemian lifestyle of a free-spirited French cinematographer and, on his return to Sarajevo, he is increasingly drawn to a beautiful but enigmatic Jewish cabaret singer, who is spying both for the authorities and a Serbian nationalist underground group.

As Anton uses the new cinema he has opened to screen officially-approved newsreels, the Serb agitators plot with their Bosnian co-conspirators to tip the country’s liberation movement into direct action, unaware that their actions will result in the most destructive conflict the world had ever seen.

All this rattles along at a cracking pace, attaining a truly epic feel despite an obviously limited budget. The actors will be largely unknown to a western European audience (though Janjic has since appeared in Michael Winterbottom’s Welcome To Sarajevo and many other films) but the performances are uniformly excellent. The film quality has deteriorated over the years, occasionally resulting in a washed-out or over-colourised look to some scenes. But in a way this adds to the effect. Stojanovic has got under the skin of his characters and their setting so well that at times the film seems as though it has come direct from the early 1900s, rather than simply being about them.

That is the true test of a historical drama, and Belle Epoque passes with flying colours. But it also has a much wider resonance as a humane and balanced portrait of people struggling to maintain their integrity and find happiness as their world descends into chaos. If there’s any justice, this film will find a UK distributor; if it does, I urge you to see it.

Reviewed on: 09 Oct 2007
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A tragicomic look at the events preceeding the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand.

Director: Nikola Stojanovic

Writer: Nikola Stojanovic

Starring: Davor Janjic, Vita Mavric, Radmila Zivkovic

Year: 1990

Runtime: 135 minutes

Country: Serbia, Bosnia-Herzegovina

Festivals:

Raindance 2007

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