Purportedly the third most expensive Serbian film ever produced, “St. George Shoots the Dragon” follows by some distance Srdjan Dragojevic’s “Pretty Village, Pretty Flame” and “The Wounds” — both ’90s pics that examined consequences of the war in Bosnia — with another antiwar statement. This one, however, takes place nearly a century ago, when Serbia fought in a series of conflicts culminating in WWI. Long-aborning feature sports a robust tenor and impressive scale, but the intended tragicomic sweep is shackled to a tepid romantic triangle of very little rooting interest. International sales will be spotty for this Montreal World fest prize-winner.
Adapted by Dusan Kovacevic from his 1984 play, the pic commences with a sepia prologue in which strapping young soldier Gavrilo (Millutin Milosevic) loses an arm during the 1912 Serbo-Turkish War. Returning home, he’s too embittered to marry Sarajevo fiancee Katarina (Natasa Janjic) as planned.
Two years later, he’s settled in a grubby village on the Sava River, smuggling goods across the border from Australia alongside other, mostly war-wounded societal castoffs. Meanwhile, Katarina has married his former army superior, George (Lazar Ristovski), if only because George is now stationed as police chief in that same village. She and Gavrilo carry on a none-too-secret affair — soon both she and his barely acknowledged peasant wife are carrying his babies — while the nobly suffering George stews.
Eventually the Great War comes along. Somewhat relieved to exchange his domestic battles for a more familiar, clear-cut kind, George returns to military service. Gavrilo is deemed unfit for duty, until fears that not-entirely-disabled veterans such as himself are plowing more than fields back home result in all such “rejects” being ordered back to the front. Climactic massacre finds the rivalrous male protags pondering whether to off one another before the enemy Austrians can.
Extensive supporting cast of rudely alive rural types does not neglect to include village idiot, hunchback, precocious orphan tyke or three-legged dog. Equally broad are the portentous and/or religious symbolism. Dragojevic directs the noisy, sprawling tale in colorful, confident fashion, at times recalling the rambunctious grotesquerie of Emir Kusturica’s “Underground” (a more successful Kovacevic adaptation, also starring Ristovski). But it all seems schematic rather than felt, as if original inspiration had run out during a too-lengthy and troubled production history.
Biggest problem is the central romance, which is neither convincing nor appealing. Milosevic sticks to one macho, sexy glower; Janjic’s beauty alone can’t render enchanting a prematurely emancipated heroine whose defining trait is hissy-fit petulance. Ristovski is solid as usual, but as written, his sad-sack cuckold is more pathetic than sympathetic.
Effect throughout is busy but hollow, despite the tragic-epic-romance notes hopefully signaled by Aleksandar Randjelovic’s orchestral score. When the pic ends on the statement, “And so it went, through the 20th century,” it feels like a parting shrug rather than the intended passionate protest against Serbia’s near-incessant violent struggles.
Though post-production was reportedly delayed (the pic was shot three years ago), then rushed and underfunded, tech/design contributions are all high-grade.