Lazar Ristovski, the Yugoslav actor best known to Western audiences for his perf as Blacky in Emir Kusturica’s Palme d’Or-winning “Underground,” makes his feature directing debut with “The White Suit,” a film that strenuously tries to combine surreal and poetic qualities (associated with Kusturica) with a simple, down-to-earth yarn. Pic centers on a military officer’s trip to his hometown to pay tribute to his deceased mother, and its setting is confined mostly to a train. The narrative is at once too theatrical and too allegorical, employing a gallery of characters that is not particularly interesting. The most striking element of “Suit,” which could be a candidate for major film fests, is its determination not to let broader politics override its thematic concerns.
Filling the roles of producer, writer, helmer and lead actor has given Ristovski a great measure of freedom in creating a personal film. Helmer’s theatrical origins as actor and stage director are unmistakable, even when the story goes out of its way to be “cinematic” in its few outdoor scenes.
Riding his bike in the forest, Savo (Ristovski) introduces himself in a whimsical narration as a single, sensitive, middle-aged military man who likes to write and recite poems. His only attachment is to his white dog, Petko, which follows him wherever he goes. In the first scene, Savo is informed by his superior that a telegram from his brother, Vuko, asks that he come immediately to the funeral of their mother, who has died suddenly. Vuko makes only one request, that Savo bring his one and only white suit.
After a 10-minute prologue, story switches to the train, where Savo meets a number of characters: an older gentleman (Velimir Bata Zivojinovic), a pimp (Dragan Nikolic) who travels with a group of prostitutes, some soldiers and drunkards. It’s no accident that the characters are nameless, for Ristovski uses them in a symbolic manner that strives for universal meaning.
Only exception is Carmen (Radmila Shchogolyeva), a beautiful Russian prostitute who’s presented by her jealous pimp as deaf and mute. Instantly smitten with Carmen, Savo becomes determined to save her from the clutches of her exploitative boss. In the climax of an all-night sequence that comprises half the movie, he declares love to her in a hundred different languages.
Switching from one compartment to another lends the loosely structured tale some vivid color, though the limitations of the setting often make for a stilted movie. In this and other respects, narrative bears resemblance to such classic films as “Stagecoach” or “Grand Hotel,” in which disparate characters are thrown into an intense situation that brings to the surface personal and social conflicts.
In this movie, chief emotional strain is provided by Carmen, who’s desperate to escape her pimp and start a new life. Ristovski provides some surprises in the last reel, when Savo meets his brother (played by helmer in black cowboy hat and boots).
As in Kusturica’s recent work, there are attempts at slapstick humor and surrealism, though these and other Felliniesque touches often feel extraneous. Ristovski’s graceful presence dominates every frame, but his performance is contained in what’s finally an inconsequential, not terribly wild or illuminating film.