Timotije Miodrag Krivokapic
Stevan Marta Keler
Dostana Ina Gogalova
Mijat Igor Bjelan
Paun Slobodan Milovanovic
With: Matija Praskalo, Mirko Vlahovic, Sladjana Bebic, Vjenceslav Kapural, Nada Gacesic Livakovic, Natalija Karna, Lana Djurkin, Andrijana Videnovic, Miodrag Macura, Petar Popovic, Darko Kralj, Milan Bradas, Ante Ivkovic, Radovan Veslinovic, Milca Kutlaca, Jeifna Vuckovic, Nikolina Dragisic, Jelena Stankovic.
SAN FRANCISCO–Until fairly recently in certain parts of Yugoslavia, families without male children were considered “cursed” by the gods. In desperation, they’d occasionally cast a female offspring as a “virgina”– raising and passing her off to the community as a boy. Srdjan Karanovic’s film of the same name creates an engrossing fictive narrative out of this odd secret tradition. Pic’s prospects outside Europe are iffy, but emphasis on the fascination of its bizarre subject could coax modest art house biz.
Already saddled with three young girls and the attendant low social status, farmer Timotije and wife Dostana live in the extreme poverty of late 19th century rural Serbian terrain. Fellow villagers even blame the family’s “misfortune” for a punishing drought.
When Dostant gives birth to yet another girl, Timotije comes close to blowing the infant’s life away with a shotgun–a primal image if ever there was one.
But instead he opts to re-make the child as male “Stevan.” Neighbors rejoice at the lie, and miraculously rains soon do fall.
Most of “Virgina” takes place years later, as Stevan is growing into an understandably very confused adolescent. After being kept a virtual prisoner to the home for many years, the girl-boy must constantly avoid being “found out” by the community.
The unrelievedly harsh, centuries-old ways of this culture are well-detailed, as is its overbearing misogyny — both wrapped in a heavy shroud of religious-superstitious masochism. (The long-suffering wife passively tells hubby “I know, it’s all my fault. Beat me if you want.”)
But Karanovic manages to wring a surprising dry humor from this very strange coming-of-age story. Told “he” is “as beautiful as a girl,” Stevan has an inner spunk that rebels against his sternly protective father — finally leading to the melodramatic finale.
Meanwhile, there’s a lot of gender-blurring comedy that’s quite engaging as Stevan simultaneously protects and chafes against her/his family’s confining secret. A brazen little girl who expects to be his “wife” and a sexually curious male teenage pal provide some amusing tension.
And there’s a major surprise lurking in the identity of another village member. The fadeout (with Stevan fatherless and probably en route to America) offers the promise of a happy true-identity future — not so unlike “Yentl,” really.
Acting is very good, as are tech credits — the washed-out photography conveys the bleakness of the landscape while allowing a mini-epic feel. Deliberately paced, “Virgina” won’t be an easy sell, but astute marketing couldlocate the right aud for its ultimately absorbing and quite likable tale.