Experiencing Croatia’s volatile 1940s and 1950s swings from fascism to communism had to be more exciting than watching “The Long Dark Night,” Croat helmer Antun Vrdoljak’s long and only mildly dark treatment of the era. Lensed as a dozen 45-minute episodes for a Croatian Radiotelevision series and then trimmed haphazardly down to three hours for cinemas, epic paradoxically feels both too long and too short — with scenes that go on forever and riddled with sudden narrative jumps. Top prize-winner at the Pula Film Festival and the Croatian Oscar submission, pic won’t travel much beyond local screens, despite the presence of “ER’s” suave Goran Visnjic.
Visnjic’s hero, Iva, is a novelistic prototype who continually finds himself at the center of historic events, whether it’s the pre-war persecution of Jews (he aids his pal Robert, a Jew, played by Kresimir Mikic); the wartime battle between anti-fascist partisans (which he joins) and the fascist Ustasha (which Goran Navojec’s Mata, an even closer buddy, joins), or the Tito-era brutalities.
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But, even as the film tries to draw a tough critique of the evils of extreme right and left, it forgets to give its hero much of anything to do except react to the events and personalities around him. Visnjic’s piercing eyes serve as a witness to the times, and he shows he can stand up for what’s right and defend his friends, but Iva’s symbolic character severely limits Visnjic’s chances for taking over a movie that needs a strong star to command attention.
As a morally impure counterpart, Iva’s fascistic buddy Mata, a man who survives by his wits, is far more interesting than Iva; he’s a more shaded Gunther Grass-type existential man in contrast to Iva’s stick-figure good guy. When Vrdoljak’s sprawling, jumpy narrative rests on Mata, warmly played by Navojec, the movie momentarily comes alive.
Alas, hour after hour of nasty, moustache-twirling Hitler-ites and Tito-ites take over, turning this half-TV series, half-movie into a serious-toned cartoon of a time of powerful, complex political conflicts. When Iva tells ill-fated wife Vera (Katarina Bistrovic-Darvas) that “the war has ruined me,” it doesn’t ring true, since the war barely appears onscreen –reduced to background either in the script or the theatrical version.
Meanwhile, the primary method of torture by Communist baddies appears to be talking the victims to death, since little but chatter consumes the second, and far more boring, half.
Production is visually bland to a stultifying degree, with period detail only modestly realized. Igor Kuljeric and Sinisa Leopold’s music sounds like it belongs in an elevator.