It would be tempting to describe Nedzad Begovic’s “Totally Personal” as totally charming, or totally whimsical. But, that would be unfair to a film which exhibits such subtlety and melancholic depth. Destined to be a festival favorite although unlikely to find much in the way of commercial berths domestically — except among aficionados of Balkan culture and wit — “Totally Personal” should be its own film school class: A class in the art of imbuing bare-bones cinema with grace, mirth and personality.
Not being able to make his film is part of the director’s shtick. Begovic, who evokes Andrei Tarkovsky (and the famous “‘Andrei Rublev” bell) as he solemnly intones his “intention to make this film a masterpiece,” spends a lot of time grousing about not being able to finance a movie, all the while making one of deceptively artful craft and humor.
It feels ad hoc but isn’t. It may strive for an illusion of informality, but each juxtaposed scene is a buttress in the ultimate construct, the rendering of a life (his) in snapshot imagery and fragmented memory.
Begovic’s cast is Begovic’s family: His striking wife, Amina, their daughters, Sabrina and Naida, and several parents and kinfolk used for prop value and satirical comment. He begins at the beginning — his Eastern Bloc childhood under Marshal Tito, who dominated both politics and culture (books shown include “Tito and Bee Keeping,” “Tito and Philately” and “Tito and Vegetarian Cuisine”).
In what the director sees as the cultural slime trail of “Star Wars” and “The Matrix,” Begovic asks, “Is there any way for a guy like me with no money to make a film except maybe like this?” He then does what the big boys never do: He starts over. Ten or 15 minutes into his film, Begovic’s friends tell him it’s “crap” (or “fucking crap” in one case) and the film commences again, this time differently, freshly, still lofted on Enes Zlatar’s bouyant score but with new focus and purpose.
Begovic, a Sarajevo native (his thickly accented English takes a bit of getting used to), relates his experience during the ’90s war in terms of typically Bosnian absurdist comedy. One day, he narrates, as viewers see the Sarajevo Post Office, “graffiti appeared saying ‘This is Serbia.'” Then more graffiti appeared. “No idiot,” it read, “this is the post office.” Then the shooting started.
When Begovic shows buildings ruined by shell shot, he does so with soap bubbles floating through the ruins. When he tells of the hardships of wartime he does so via bemused anecdote: His mother, whom he shows at stove-side, knew that burning a size 38 sneaker would bake a loaf of bread; a size 43 would stew a pot of beans. Frugal woman that she was, she would never, he says, use a 43 to bake bread and “waste five sizes.”
“Totally Personal” is about the art of film, and it is about the dubious art of being family man Nedzad Begovic. He is held in amused affection by the women in his life, especially Amina, whose startling face is held in a still, frozen moment as Begovic tells her his plans for the film.
“She understands,” he says, “that I will once again spend all of our money on my fantasy.” Tears well in her eyes.
The same beleaguered woman, however, shaves her head down to a Nike swoosh in an effort to get sponsorship for her husband’s film. The sequence is a goof on corporate cinema, of course, but also a mutual testament between husband and wife. “Totally Personal” is, in the end, a total success, although exclamation points would be out of character for a film so droll and bittersweet.