A stylish black comedy about life in contempo Belgrade that satirizes the moral malaise clouding Serbia, “Devil’s Town” reps a strong feature debut from writer-helmer Vladimir Paskaljevic. Much like his father Goran’s 1998 “The Powder Keg,” it is savagely funny yet frightening, plausible but absurd; a scorching expose of the national character. With a host of top thesps playing city dwellers whose lives intersect on a hot summer day while the country’s tennis stars compete in an important tournament, the cleverly structured pic should do robust biz at home during its November release, with a chance of specialized exposure offshore.
In Paskaljevic’s uncivil Serbia, corruption is so normal that one character notes, “In this country if you don’t lie, steal and fight, everyone takes you for a fool.” Here, too, the degradation of women seems widely accepted; most of the distaff characters are forced to trade on their sexuality and treated like cheap whores.
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Featuring multiple plotlines involving parents and children, the criss-crossing, episodic tale starts and ends with tennis-crazy tween Jelena (Marija Zeljkovic). The penniless daughter of a cleaning lady, Jelena puts up with humiliation and abuse from haughty Ivana (Mina Colic), the daughter of her mother’s nouveau riche employer, simply to get a racket and a chance to play.
Meanwhile, subsequent encounters continue the tennis motif and up the ante for bad behavior. Spoiled rich boy Ciril (Uros Jovcic) attacks pretty former g.f. Natalija (Jana Milic) while her mother (Danica Ristovski) blithely remains focused on a televised match. Likewise glued to their TVs are leering loser Viktor (Igor Djordjevic) and wannabe filmmaker Filomen (Goran Jevtic), a soon-to-be-fired construction crew and the genial prostitutes at an upscale brothel.
As Paskaljevic’s tightly constructed script playfully connects the dramatis personae in unexpected ways, further character shading challenges viewers’ first impressions. Particularly important in this regard are put-upon businessman Boris (Nebojsa Milovanovic) and hot-tempered taxi driver Rajko (Lazar Ristovski), whose fraught second encounter reverses opinions formed during the first.
With a stellar ensemble led by vet Ristovski (who chillingly throttles the character played by his real-life wife), the thesps give their all. Among the standouts are Vlastimir Velisavljevic as a retired gynecologist, wistful for another opportunity to ply his trade, and Lena Bogdanovic and Marta Beres as high-priced hookers who survive an orgy and assassination on a yacht.
Made on a budget of less than $500,000, the handsome pic owes its polished look to experienced pros from Goran Paskaljevic’s regular tech crew. Sharp, tightly framed HD lensing by the talented Milan Spasic furthers the feeling of society under a microscope, while Petar Putnikovic’s neat matching-action cutting brings the pic in at brisk 82 minutes.
The bright primary colors of the production design provide a fine foil to a final scene full of white rabbits. Unusually for a Balkan pic, there’s no music track, making the diegetic reprise of the eerie screech and harmonica playing heard under the opening credits especially resonant.