These Are the Rules (2014)

Pain, anguish and confusion are at the heart of this Croatian film about two low-income parents who are incapable of coping with tragedy. 

These Are the RulesCroatia
3*

Director:
Ognjen Sviličić

Screenwriter:
Ognjen Sviličić

Director of Photography:
Crystel Fournier

Running time: 75 minutes

Original title: Takva su pravila

Perhaps the best way to create tension is to have a character ask those questions that we, the viewers, are also thinking but that we know cannot be answered, at least not by those in the scene. In Croat director Ognjen Sviličić’s absolutely heart-wrenching These Are the Rules, a mother and father have to deal as best they know how with the sudden death of their only son, Tomica (Hrvoje Vladisavljević). The mother, Maja, keeps asking very basic questions that the father, Ivo, cannot answer, and this frustration ultimately leads to an arbitrary act of catharsis for them, but not for us.

The 17-year-old Tomica is consistently unwilling to share his life with his parents, who have grown used to him being holed up in his room. He gets beaten up and chooses to hide his bruises from his parents, especially the overprotective Maja, but he eventually relents and lets them take him to the doctor, even though he initially scoffs at his mother’s suggestion of getting stitches. But soon he falls into a coma and then into an eternal sleep, and we quickly come to share the parents’ sense of despair at this predicament they are in because their son sought to shield them from what seemed like unnecessary worries.

The rest of the film is relentlessly bleak, and the dread that starts to set in following Tomica’s hospitalisation at the end of the first act is easily on par with the emotion evoked by a similar plotline in Robert Altman’s Short Cuts. In the case of Sviličić’s film, however, there is no dramatic breather provided by cutting away to other stories, and the knot in the pit of our stomachs never goes away.

Ivo and Maja are low-income Croats living on the outskirts of Zagreb. Ivo is a bus driver, while Maja appears to be unemployed. They reveal themselves to be out of their depth when it comes to not only handling their son’s secretive behaviour but also searching for meaning following a tragedy like the one they are thrust into when their son passes out while drawing a bath. Sometimes, the setting is to blame (overcrowded hospital waiting rooms, especially, as well as medical personnel who blatantly – and in this case, fatally – disregard the urgency of their patients’ conditions), but at other times they simply do not have the experience to ask the right questions. Their lack of engagement is not directly to blame for their son’s untimely demise, but it makes the process of coping so much more difficult, because there are no satisfying answers when they don’t know which questions to ask or whom to ask for help.

It is entirely understandable that the events leave them in shock, and the father’s decision to tell people things are not particularly serious is a lie whose purity of purpose the viewer should recognise (and sympathise with) immediately. But his and his wife’s inaction in the face of trauma leave us pining for help to arrive. They visit the police station to report the attack on their son, but instead of explaining the severity of their situation, they relate the events calmly to the officer and leave without any real prospect of a serious investigation. The same happens at the hospital and at the morgue, where they receive life-changing news without any detailed explanation or advice from a professional. Their response is always either to be inactive or to talk around the problem by asking questions that are inconsequential.

Despite the director’s well-chosen approach of frustrating the viewer with traumatic stasis, however, the climax is wholly unsatisfying because it plays out more like a dream than the grim reality full of obstacles we have come to expect. While the violence in the final act makes sense on paper, it is committed in a void: a public space that someone has no witnesses that could incriminate the aggressor. It is a fantasy, and its inclusion in the film goes against the pain and confusion at the core of the film.

Viewed at the Bratislava International Film Festival 2016.

The Priest’s Children (2013)

PriestCroatia

3.5*
Director:
Vinko Brešan
Screenwriter:
Mate Matišić
Director of Photography:
Mirko Pivčević

Running time: 93 minutes

Original title: Svećenikova djeca

The Priest’s Children (Svećenikova djeca) is a visual feast and a subversive narrative treat full of humor that never outstays its welcome. Directed by acclaimed Croatian filmmaker Vinko Brešan and having a subversive priest at its core, the film ploughs the fraught but fertile soil of Bosnian-Croatian relations, including its religious component, but also opens with a rolling sequence of fourth-wall breaking that demonstrates Brešan’s playfulness not only with his subject matter but also with the art of filmmaking itself. This is an unexpectedly light-hearted romp, considering the intensity and sophistication of Witnesses (Svjedoci), Brešan’s 2003 film that dealt directly with the civil war in Yugoslavia.

Brešan’s film opens with an overhead shot of a baby crying in its crib. The overhead shot, sometimes called God’s point of view, is particularly apt as the action will rely on religion for both its logic and its comedy. The Priest’s Children is one long confession — a flashback to the misdeeds of Father Florijan (Krešimir Mikić), who is also our narrator, on a tiny island in the Adriatic Sea where he has been sent to eventually replace the aging Father Jakov. The misdeeds are multiple but mostly the same: Being frustrated at Father Jakov’s lack of initiative to keep the population from dying out, Florijan begins a campaign of mass fertilization — by ensuring all the condoms sold at the tiny kiosk on the jetty and at the pharmacy are defective.

He is helped in this by the god-fearing purveyors of the little rubbers who, each for his own slightly different reasons, would prefer it if the condoms didn’t stand in the way of population growth. However, actions have reactions, and before long foreign tourists are filling their beaches in the hope they will become fertile.

Defective condoms are no laughing matter — not only because people sometimes don’t have the means to feed an extra mouth, but also because of venereal diseases — but the director maintains the humour while never dismissing these issues out of hand, as AIDS is mentioned but since the island is so small and isolated we get the sense this is an impregnable bubble separate from the rest of civilisation.

Florijan, whose profession means he is sworn to secrecy, uses his intimate knowledge of the townspeople (who, given the size of the town, know almost all of each other’s secrets anyway) and their activities to promote, in his view, God’s preferred outcome. But while God may have some plans in this regard, Florijan and the others on the island involved in this scheme of reproduction are simply not up to the task, which leads to some hilarious scenes of ineptitude along the way.

At the start, Florijan’s confession (the flashback) is presented very creatively, as he looks into the camera to tell us directly what he is/was up to. A few minutes later, there is a very surprising, Charlie Kaufman–esque moment when the young Father Šimun (Filip Križan), whom he confesses to in the present, pops up in the flashback to ask a question, momentarily conflating the past and the present. Unfortunately, Brešan doesn’t find a way to keep up this sense of dynamism and spends the rest of the film entirely in the past, telling a straightforward story of farce set to a recognizably Balkan soundtrack, except for some quaint snippets that visually represent people’s gossip, set in an anonymous location bathed in white light with no sound besides some heavy breathing and the unmistakable thuds of flesh pounding flesh.

The deliberately controversial, tongue-in-cheek title of the film very accurately suggests the tone of the production, and few will be left disappointed by the execution of this tough balancing act that takes on the Roman Catholic Church’s position on contraception and even manages to address the issue of paedophilia in a serious way, having already laid the groundwork through comedy earlier on.

The Priest’s Children has a central character with good intentions, whose frustration with the small island town leads him to some very questionable actions, as he effectively plays God with people’s personal lives. However, we come to like him because he is naïve and never succumbs to the temptation of having even greater power over his congregation. As long as we don’t ponder the consequences of his reckless behaviour too much, this is a very gratifying and highly entertaining motion picture.

 

This is a slightly modified version of the writer’s review that first appeared in The Prague Post.