"Gravehopping" takes Slovenian helmer Jan Cvitkovic beyond the grim down-and-outers of his notable debut "Bread and Milk" into a much airier, poetic realm in the best tradition of East European black humor. Critical support could convince auds to discover this promising new talent who is putting Slovenian cinema on the map.

“Gravehopping” takes Slovenian helmer Jan Cvitkovic beyond the grim down-and-outers of his notable debut “Bread and Milk” into a much airier, poetic realm in the best tradition of East European black humor. Beginning as a simple, well-wrought local smiler that descends from Jiri Menzel’s “My Sweet Little Village,” story turns unexpectedly dark in the final reels, when comedy is jettisoned for a shocker finale. Critical support could convince auds to discover this promising new talent who, along with his producer, Janez Burger (director of “Idle Running”), is putting Slovenian cinema on the map.

Mop-headed Pero (Gregor Bakovic) specializes in giving funeral orations in a small Slovenian town. He takes his work seriously and adds personal touches to his eulogies that bring the mourners to tears. He and his best friend Shooki (Drago Milinovic), a mechanic, may not be the brightest guys on the block, but their hearts are in the right place. Their off-beat love interests are, respectively, the innocent-looking, fun-loving young Renata (Mojca Fatur), whom Pero is too bumbling and shy to bed, and Ida (Sonja Savic), a crazy, funny-faced deaf mute who adores Shooki.

What could go wrong in this idyllic setting? For the better part of the film, very little, and some tedium creeps in midway as minicrises involving Pero’s suicidal grandfather (Brane Grubar) and his battered-wife sister Vilma (Natasa Matjasec) arise and are quickly solved. This part of the film is enjoyable as a showcase for Bakovic’s great comic timing and absurdist humor, as in a simple but effective gag with a ladder or his irresistible attempt to learn English from a language tape. To be sure, editor Milos Kalusek contributes his own low-key style to the pic’s comic moments and subtly motivated scene changes.

But as the title suggests, there is a grave side to this tale, and it kicks in during //the final half hour with a rape scene almost too gruesome to watch. This explosion of repressed violence is a familiar staple of Balkan cinema, but here Cvitkovic truly catches the viewer off guard. One by one, Pero’s friends and the town itself reveal the dark side of their characters. Whereas loneliness and eccentricity seemed like the villagers’ most pressing problems, death and murder are now seen lurking just beneath the surface. Cvitkovic’s script closes in a beautifully wrought ending that blends comedy, horror, surprise and even a touch of wonder at the mystery of life.

Besides the fine Bakovic, the cast does a splendid job fleshing out unconventional roles. Savic in particular brings an otherworldly light to the playful Ida, halfway between loon and angel. Her speechless role could have come out of a Chaplin film. Milinovic has a memorable moment when he watches “Maciste, the World’s Greatest Hero” on TV and promptly adds killer chariot spikes to his car wheels. Though never exploited narratively, this surreal touch subtly prefigures the scenes of violence to come.

Simon Tansek’s lensing recalls Fritz Lang’s phrase that Cinemascope was designed for snakes and funerals. Here it conveys a range of sentiments, from intimate comedy to the extremely powerful image of the rape and on to the eternal beauty of sky, meadows and nature and, yes, funerals. Aldo Ivancic’s ironic score is playful but focused.

Gravehopping

Slovenia-Croatia

Production

A Staragara (Ljubljana)/Propeler Film (Zagreb) production. (International sales: Taskovski Films, London.) Produced by Janez Burger, Jan Cvitkovic. Directed, written by Jan Cvitkovic.

Crew

Camera (color, Cinemascope), Simon Tansek; editor, Milos Kalusek; music, Aldo Ivancic; production designers, Vasja Kokelj, Andraz Trkman; costume designers, Polonca Valentincic, Beti Njari; sound (Dolby Digital), Bostjan Kacicnik. Reviewed at San Sebastian Film Festival (competing), Sept. 21, 2005. Running time: 103 MIN.

With

Pero - Gregor Bakovic Shooki - Drago Milinovic Ida - Sonja Savic Renata - Mojca Fatur
With: Natasa Matjasec, Domen Remskar, Brane Grubar, Zoran Dzeverdanovic, Vlado Novak.
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