Oja Kodar’s emotional account of the war in Croatia illustrates the danger of trying to tell a war story while the conflict is still going on. Scripted more than two years ago, when Croatia was seen internationally as a victim of Serbian aggression, “A Time for …” takes up the Croatian banner so passionately it can easily pass for propaganda today.
The changing face of the war has given Italian co-productions RAI-3 and Ellepi Film cold feet, and no date has been fixed for its Italo release.
In Croatia, picture has been an enormous hit. With government blessing, it’s been screened even in war-torn towns in practically underground conditions to avoid attracting Serbian bombs on assembled filmgoers. But the extreme emotions surrounding the war have made the film controversial among Croatian hawks, who object to the presence of a positive, peace-loving Serb character.
Though Croat herself, Kodar — Orson Welles’ final companion, who worked on many of his last films — is a longtime California resident. Admirers of “Jaded, ” her interesting first pic set among the low-lifes of Venice, Calif., will find it hard to believe the same director opted for the sentimental style and patriotic theme on show here.
Story revolves around Marija (Nada Gacesic-Livakovic), who flees with her teenage son when their village is attacked by the ruthless Serbian militiamen known as Cetniks. Film’s often-confused style actually works in this powerful scene of rape, torture and killing, as the villagers scatter in terror and the Cetniks cruelly turn against their former neighbors in an orgy of bloodshed.
A working knowledge of the Yugoslav conflict is practically essential to be able to follow the characters and the rapid succession of events. But things calm down quickly into everyday routine.
Marija finds a job in a hospital laundry in town. Her son, Darko (Zvonimir Novosel), falls for a pretty girl whose mother is missing.
Everything is told with the crushing predictability of old-style Soviet war pictures, in which all the characters are unbelievably good or bad, with no motivations needed or allowed. Darko slips away against his mother’s entreaties and joins the Croat partisans. After a battle with the Cetniks, he is believed to be killed, and an unrecognizable corpse is delivered to a despairing Marija.
The film boasts one powerful archetypal image — Marija pulling a wooden cart loaded with a coffin bearing her son’s body through the devastated countryside. This arresting icon has a universal antiwar resonance that briefly raises “A Time for …” to the level of its lofty ambitions.
Croatian viewers have found the film extremely moving, in part because it was lensed in ruined churches and on real battlefields, with gunfire heard from the set. The problem for other filmgoers will be in overcoming Kodar’s lack of emotional distance from her subject and deciphering her codes.
For example, the film’s distinction between the good Serb and the evil Cetniks means little to the uninitiated, but it is a radical message for some Croats.
Gacesic-Livakovic creates a memorable portrait of a Croatian Mother Courage, strong enough to raise a son alone and bury him by herself. Despite its technical mediocrity, this passionate, emotionally charged film will remain a disconcerting document of the Yugoslav tragedy, seen from the point of view of a particular place and time.