Review: ‘Balkan! Balkan!’

A lively, vibrant film could have been made from these stories by Panait Istrati, which are set in a small town on the Danube in the second half of the last century. But Gyula Maar's direction fails completely to bring the material to life and the result is a dull rendering of what should have been most exciting.

A lively, vibrant film could have been made from these stories by Panait Istrati, which are set in a small town on the Danube in the second half of the last century. But Gyula Maar’s direction fails completely to bring the material to life and the result is a dull rendering of what should have been most exciting.

Right from the first shot it’s clear that Maar, who’s done decent, if rather academic, work in the past, was the wrong choice for this hedonistic, exotic yarn. His use of ponderous long takes destroys the rhythm the material so obviously needs, and his staging of potentially vibrant scenes falls utterly flat.

The town in question is Braila, where a melting pot of Romanians, Turks and Greeks co-existed. The story centers on 17-year-old Dragomir (Frigyes Funtek), a narcissistic youth whose wild mother and sister regularly participated in orgies while the youth’s father and older brother were absent; the father would return to beat his wife and daughter, and the former eventually loses an eye as a result of one such beating. Dragomir and Kyra, his beloved sister, pay to have their father and brother murdered; the brother is killed, but the father escapes , and so mother and siblings hit the road.

They’re eventually separated (the pretty Kyra is allegedly sold into prostitution) and Dragomir latches on to the charismatic Codin, a raffish fellow who turns out to be a multiple murderer. A relationship develops between them which could be sexual, though this is never clear; they become “blood brothers.”

Costumes, locations and camera work evoke a colorful bygone world, and it’s sad that the director is unable to inject any life into the promising material. The actors, mostly Romanians dubbed into Hungarian, don’t stand much of a chance. The music, derived from Romanian traditional songs, is lively, and technical credits are generally on a high level.

Balkan! Balkan!

Production

A Focusfilm-Objektiv Filmstudio (Budapest)/47th Parallel Prods. (Paris)/Par Prods. (Istanbul) co-production, with the support of Eurimages. (International sales: Cinemagyar, Budapest.) Produced by Denes Szekeres, Zafer Par, Jean-Paul Dekiss. Directed by Gyula Maar. Screenplay, Maar, Panait Istrati, based on Istrati's novels "Codin" and "Kyra Kyralina."

Crew

Camera (color), Janos Vecsernyes; editor, Zsuzsa Jambor; production design, Tamas Banovich; costumes, Svetlana Mihailescu; sound, Andras Horvath, Janos Reti. Reviewed at Hungarian Film Week, Budapest, Feb. 6, 1994. Running time: 117 MIN.
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