That “Bal-can-can” reps Macedonia’s biggest-ever theatrical hit, outpacing even Hollywood blockbuster, definitely says something about the local aud’s ability to identify with dark, absurdist material that might frighten away just about any other mainstream public. (Admittedly, it took only 120,000 patrons to set the record.) Picaresque black comedy about a Macedonian/Italian duo chasing a stolen corpse through the war-ravaged chaos of former Yugoslavian and USSR territories resembles Kusturica’s epic allegory “Underground,” but has its own distinct flavor. Already well-traveled on the fest circuit, it will likely attract scattered offshore theatrical sales and wider DVD exposure.
Writer-helmer Darko Mitrevski, expanding on the anarchic doomsday tenor of his 1998 feature debut “Goodbye 20th Century,” keeps pushing the envelope. Viewers may feel he crosses the line at numerous points, with the climactic burst of outrageously improbable “Rambo”-style heroics likely to strike most as overkill. Still, this cynical, hallucinatory, modern “Pilgrim’s Progress” is a trip, with memorably out-there sequences sure to build a cult rep among adventuresome cineastes.
Breakneck prologue sketches the petty-thieving days of two inseparable ne’er-do-wells (Vasko Todorov, Branko Ognjanovski) tricked into a doomed attempt at train robbery. Cornered by Macedonian soldiers, one spends the next several years languishing in prison; the other successfully bolts, finally making it to Italy. On their deathbeds, each tell their sons they are second-generation blood brothers, making the two sons, who’ve never met, swear absolute loyalty if fate ever brings them together.
Hapless Trendafil (Vlado Jovanovski) is a lifelong coward-turned-nervous wreck as civil war rages in Macedonia. His shrewish mother-in-law Zumbula (Seka Sabljic) and military-nut brother-in-law Dzango (Toni Mihajlovski) would happily shove him into the line of fire. But long-suffering wife Ruza (Zvezda Angelovska) still loves him enough to hide Trendafil from draft enforcers.
Once Trendafil, Ruza and Zumbula escape from Dzango and have cross the Albanian border, their car breaks down, Granny suffers a fatal stroke and someone steals the carpet in which they’ve temporarily rolled her corpse. This forces Trentafil to play his last card: calling the Italian “blood brother” he’s never known.
Santino (Adolfo Margiotta) is a petty operator who’s seldom seen action wilder than a strip-club. But despite their lack of common language, the two men soon drive off to retrieve granny.
Their odyssey becomes a wild-goose-chase twisting through just about every Balkan territory, with increasingly surreal and violent craziness at each stop. Corruption, arms trading, religious and ethnic hate, rape, torture seem the way of things. Some folks remain busy killing each other even though they’ve long since forgotten what were fighting for.
Arguable peak in cringe-inducing, bad-taste hilarity is when protags stumble into the middle of a Croation Hatfields-vs.-McCoys dispute where sworn enemies casually stop their warfare — alas, too briefly — to have lunch together.
Extreme content and grotesque comedy maintain a precarious balance until the long, unironic final setpiece finally stacks the deck so high it topples.
While Mitrevski isn’t working on anything like the physical scale or budgetary resources Kusturica had, pic generally rises to the challenge of its production ambitions. Perfs are spot-on, design contribs colorful.