Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Battle Royal of the Lamentations

No amount of death and mania can ensure a good or a bad romance. A pair of sisters discover this in 2008's Charleston for Ognjenka (Чарлстон за Огњенку), a delightful Serbian fantasy film of rampaging, boozy dream logic.

The beautiful young Ognjenka (Sonja Kolačarić) and Mala (Katarina Radivojević), a pair of sisters who earn their living as "wailers"--women paid for moaning and crying at funerals--are sent forth from the small village of Pokrp to replace the village male. Set just after World War I, Charleston for Ognjenka portrays a Serbia whose male population has been decimated by the war leaving a country disproportionately filled with women.

Pokrp did see two men return from the war but neither survived long after returning. One of them perished after planting landmines in the town vineyard, an unfortunate circumstance as the vineyard provided the village's primary income--the "vinagrad" becomes the "minagrad" the film's narrator notes. Now the women draw straws to see who'll risk their lives to pick the valuable grapes.

The film, one of the most expensive Serbian films ever made, has been compared to expensive French fantasy films and in its frequent wide angle close-ups and adult fantasy story one can certainly see a resemblance to Luc Besson (whose company distributed the film) or Jean-Pierre Jeunet. The town's strange and deadly story and the story of the sisters' grandmother, whose especially tragic life served as an instigator of the family wailing business, are told to the audience by a narrator over montage, much like the beginning of Amelie and a number of other French films.

But I would certainly not say this film feels remotely formulaic. Not having a plot really and featuring an end that gleefully avoids a tidy or coherent resolution, the movie ploughs ahead beside the sisters, throwing up one fascinating idea after another, usually with a sweet sense of timing. I would rather not spoil for you the effects of the "spider brandy" on the women in the Pokrp tavern as it's the very unexpected quality of those effects that make them so wonderful.

I'll just run through a few things I really loved--a spontaneous tavern brawl between women who in the process throw off their shoes and break glasses with their bare feet; a woman losing her virginity in the back of a hearse that seems to be driving itself to Belgrade; an abandoned bride who for some reason carries a flintlock pistol with her everywhere.

The film features a lot of beautiful imagery, too, not limited to the endless supply of gorgeous actresses. The rocky beauty of Eastern Europe and Serbian decor are on lovely display. Also, upside down bicycling.

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Grass lined throat behemoths process the sky.
Atlantis burns for a cardboard spacecraft.
Video tapes taught DVDs to cry.
The blonde buttoned her bikini and laughed.
A brunette zippered her hat and chuckled.
Pine trees lean in and behead the fresh moon.
Fresheners in the garbage truck buckled.
Knees will not stand for untimely plucked loon.
Tricolour redwood rings speak of motion.
Tracheas in fossilised clouds will sing.
Sea gull giants mitigate the ocean.
Juniper braids rebrand the old burnt sling.
Cast iron fish scrape the cold castle floor.
The Green Man brings venison to the door.

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