AGORA
: Dragged from her chariot by a mob of fanatical vigilante Christian monks, the revered astronomer was stripped naked, skinned to her bones with sharp oyster shells, stoned and burned alive as possibly the first executed witch in history. A kind of purge that was apparently big business back then.


CRITICAL WOMEN HEADLINES

4/28/09

Tears For Sale: Women On War

Tears for Sale/Čarlston za Ognjenku

Director: Uroš Stojanović
Cast: Katarina Radivojević, Sonja Kolačarić, Stefan Kapičić, Nenad Jezdić

Review by Nancy Keefe Rhodes
Syracuse International Film Festival


Cinema sometimes answers the horrors of modern war and its equally devastating aftermath in the countryside with fierce fantasy. US audiences will think readily of Guillermo del Toro’s 2006 Pan’s Labyrinth, for example. There, a lonely young girl took refuge in a protective parallel world based in myth and fairy tale as Franco’s Fascist regime held sway in the person of the sadistic Captain Vidal, whose mission was to root out resistance fighters among the mountain peasants. But even del Toro’s 1944 Spain is an orderly world when set next to the post-World War I Serbian mountains of director Uroš Stojanović’s debut feature.

Tears for Sale was added late to this year’s Syracuse International Film Festival (April 24 – May 3), so it’s missing from the printed program. Fortunately, there was room for it mid-evening on the first Sunday at the city’s venerable old Palace Theater, where it was the finale to the day’s program in that venue of experimental and fantasy shorts alternating with sober documentaries. Thus one arrives in the topsy-turvy world of Pokrp, the fictional mountain village in a nation that lost two-thirds of its male population in the trenches of the Great War. In Pokrp’s landscape, there seems to be no order save that of legend, curse, luck and their attendant obligations, even as distant Belgrade beckons throughout the story with its glittering new sky-scraper and its "new age" requiring a new dance.

The film opens in an ancient cemetery that’s largely underwater. On the shore, Ognjenka (Katarina Radivojević) and her sister Little Boginja (Sonja Kolačarić) bicker over whether taking a swim in such waters is cursed (the cemetery is flooded with the tears of their deceased grandmother, a mourner of epic proportions). A voice-over meticulously, sometimes lyrically narrates how the family business has flourished. Only two men returned from the war in 1918 and the survivor of these two – more cemetery doings – blew himself sky-high after lacing the vineyard with land mines. Now, village women draw straws during harvest to enter the vineyard and, near the story’s end, one of the sisters will enter by choice to dance a last time – a tango – with her lover, after he ventures in by mistake.

These images continue. There is a great deal of mixing elemental life and death in Tears for Sale. Thus, the village inn keeps a specially potent “spider brandy” under lock and key, taken out to conjure up the village’s dead, zombie-like war veterans who retain their fatal injuries from the grave as they dance with the living. Thus a stately old hearse serves as a main conveyance in the sisters’ travels and love-making. The film has screened abroad as Funeral Brides and, a literal translation of its Serbian title, Charleston and Vendetta.

Like all good yarns, this one begs re-telling in all its twists and turns. But suffice it to say that Ognjenka and Little Boginja embark on a forced march, to return in three days with a man for the village to replace the late, lamented Grandpa Bisa. As they cross the map, they find other villages are similarly, sometimes comically afflicted. Then they encounter a two-man traveling side-show. Dragoljub Aleksic (Nenad Jezdić) makes his living being shot from a giant cannon as the "Man of Steel" – what better occupation and what more suitable image in a land destitute of virility? His side-kick is the bowler-hatted, mustachioed, initially shifty “King of the Charleston” (Stefan Kapičić), ostensibly the brains of the outfit. The four pair off and repeatedly consider slipping off to Belgrade, but return dutifully to Pokrp and there discover each man prefers fidelity in the midst of riotous lust.

Ulysses Pictures/Blue Pen executive producer Mirjana Tomić was on hand for the festival screening and afterward she spoke at some length about the younger film community’s enthusiasm for working on a different kind of cinema project than usually has come from Serbia in recent years. A superb ensemble of women – an older executive type, a witch in a crow’s beak headdress who looses the grandmother's spirit as a flock of red birds from the open jaws of a cow's skull, a lusty young rival for the strong-man, that grandmother herself, the village “bad girl” and a bride whose groom was torn from her arms at the alter by the war – populate Tears for Sale.

New-comer Uroš Stojanović has made an extraordinarily accomplished and absorbing film. The son of veteran Serbian screen and TV actor Fedja Stojanović, he had considerable support and talent on-board besides the thoroughly committed cast. A joint production of France, Serbia and Gibraltar, the film had as major producer (and now European distributor) French filmmaker Luc Besson. Director’s Wong Kar-wai’s regular composer, Shigeru Umebayashi of Japan, did the score. Shot over three months in the fall of 2005 and taking three years for post-production, Tears for Sale is both Serbia’s most expensive film to date and its most successful indigenous box office hit. Despite some major festival screenings including Cannes and Toronto, except for January’s Santa Barbara festival it has been little seen in this country and it won’t get major European theatrical release until this summer.

Nancy Keefe Rhodes
Women’s Voices Radio/WAER Syracuse 88.3 FM
Stylus Magazine

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