Film: ProfesionalacRecently, someone asked me if I had a copy of "The Professional", recent Serbian film (among many unrelated films of that name). I said that I don't, and barely managed not to add "what do you need that piece of crap for anyway?"... To each their own, this film has ability to hit the weak spot, especially to Serbs, permanently poisoned with politics. To me, a proof that master of one craft is not necessarily a master of other, even if it's a very similar craft.
Said master is Dusan Kovacevic, Serbian drama writer, one of the most popular playwrights whose popularity often eclipses the fact that he's also an important figure in Serbian postmodern literature. His popularity is often due to his plays being transcribed to films, of which at least two ("Underground" and "Who's singing over there") reached European ground.
From the critical side, his works are treatments of local mentality seen through postmodern glass, with typical absurd gone to extreme. Perhaps his best known drama work is "The professional", drama for two actors (and one statist). Probably considering it his magnum opus, Kovacevic decided that this drama needs to be turned into a film a few years ago. He decided he would direct a "Professional" and improve something that didn't really need any improvement.
I'm actually writing all this because I just finished reading of Manuel Puig's novel "Kiss of the spider-woman", landmark novel of the third generation of modern Latin-American literature, known also for Hector Babenco's film from 1985. John Hurt, Oscar nomination for main role.
Novel, written exclusively in (internal and external) dialogue with a bit of bureaucratic and scientific documents on the side, concerns Valentin, political prisoner, placed in the same cell as Molina, gay arrested for seducing minors, with diction to Molina to try to drag information about resistance from Valentin in exchange for freedom.
I won't go into details about philosophical repercussions of the novel, I’d just be rewriting pretty thoughtful preface of the book. What matters, though, is that book creates an entire new world in that cell, the feeling that many characters pass and many things happen between those two characters, as Mona re-tells Valentin old pulp movies, he tells them so vividly that we have a feeling that we've seen much more than we physically did.
The novel would make an excellent theatre play, and indeed it did, one of versions being on repertoire in Belgrade as well.
By one logic, the genuine effect of an art is to evoke what isn't there, to make what it actually lacks, whole renaissance (with it’s perspective and chiaroscuro) was spent in artists trying to evoke a third dimension on a two-dimensional canvas, right now, all comic-authors in the world are thinking how to make the sensation of passing time in medium where space is the only real constant, and writers always have and always will try to bring picture to where only words are.
Theatre, confined in production limitations, stage, little secluded square box with a few people on it, tries to expand to the rest of the world and evoke as many characters and places as it can with its limited resources; "The Professional", the drama, did just that and that's why i loved it: during the lengthy conversation of two people, so many ghosts of the past walked the stage that drama was not for a moment static. The whole concept was so perfectly fit to drama form that i knew the film would lose something.
"The Professional" is a story about Teodor Kraj, ex-dissident, rebel against communist government who is, in his later years, confronted with the government agent Luka Laban who followed him his entire life - first a job, later turned into an obsession. And so Luka Spent his entire life Stalking Teodor, gathering information about him, picking up pieces of life that Teodor was recklessly throwing away, and now that every political motive has lost it's value, Luka presents it all in a big suitcase. Memories ensue and the bond between two men becomes a complex mix of closeness, hatred, gratefulness and fear.
On stage, Laban was played by Bata Stojkovic, considered the greatest of Serbian actors. He died a few years ago and one thing that I’ll never forgive myself is not going to see that play in live, while he was still alive. Teodor Is played by an excellent actor Bogdan Diklic, sadly undervalued because of typecasting (who he played Molina in Serbian theatrical version of "spider-woman" and strangely, does have resemblance with William Hurt, film Molina). Film “The Professional”, of course, couldn't repeat the casting, since Bata was already dead.
The very first reason why the film shouldn't've been made was that the whole thing was perfect in its theatrical form. I told of many events and characters that exist on the stage so vividly as is we really see them. Idea of the film was, obviously, to bring them all "on stage" physically, not through dialogue. Apparently, starting idea of this transition is that theatre is the constraining form of art that film gives author real freedom. Kovacevic's misses the fact that art is a constant fight with limitations and that the more you achieve with the less, the greater the achievement is. Thus film was doomed to be lesser than play from the beginning.
Evocative power is lost. We are not invited to imagine things, we are shown things. Instead of our imagination, we are restrained to director's imagination. Thus it's all less impressive and moving.
Another huge mistake that film made was decision to update the story. From original eighties, it was placed into present time, oppressive communism was changed into oppressive Milosevic's regime, and seemingly democratic last decade of Yugoslavia was replaced with post-Milosevic's democratic regime. Kovacevic presumed himself larger than life and went into evaluating this regime before four years of its government rounded (time will prove that he was wrong in many accounts). Ironically, Kovacevic was one of many who, with their activist work, helped installing this new regime, but he doesn't save much satire for himself; he chooses to take all the gratitude but never any responsibility, being a man of arts and not of politics - when it's convenient. Film casts in role of Teodor Branislav Lecic, excellent actor but increasingly irritating celebrity (you can think of him as Serbian Tom Cruise in his most manic version); prouding himself of being an activist against old regime, he became an installment of new regime, very incompetent one at that. So he was basically playing himself and seemed to get a good Laugh out of mocking his real life. Sadly he never learned anything from his role. Lecic and Kovacevic are long-time collaborators on mono-drama "5 stars trash bin" and they're so used to their inn-jokes that most of people won't get, that they pop them into "The Professional" without even noticing.
Role of Laban Is given to Bora Todorovic, veteran of minimal character acting, an actor whose move of a single muscle on his face is enough to tell you what he thinks; he doesn't seed to shout and wave his arms like Lecic to act.
As I already said, it was unfair to try to evaluate work of such new government, specially, as Kovacevic did, lingering on it's bad sides and ignoring good sides, with flaky populist conclusion that "they're all the same". This problematic thought is taken further: while Teodor Is a cynical powermonger, Laban is still a firm believer in his cause, even if he knows it was all wrong. Milosevic's era was painted with nostalgia, stupidity and blindness turned into dedication and there’s another problematic conclusion: "at least back then we knew who our enemy was". Milosevic’s era appears to be fed on naïve dedication, while in new, democratic era, just about everyone is a cynical bastard. This vision can be believed by those who have short term memory loss.
Bottom line, it all adds up to a general problem of local cinematographies. Remembering the comment of a Turkish director whose interview I saw after a projection of his recent film, that each national cinematography consists majorly of commercial trash and a few valuable films. Each national commercial trash is different, soothing to specifics of the nation. In Turkish, it's bad rip-offs of Hollywood blockbusters with cheap special effects; in Serbia, it's rural comedies depicting primitive local characters; the more primitive and dislikeable, the better, Serbs seem to want to hate characters of their films. "The Professional" has all that: it's lowest common denominator; it has violence, sex, weddings and funerals, singing, drinking and shooting in the air; it has politics and that's the real reason for updating the script: catering to the audience that gets more gusto from bashing current politicians than those from twenty yes ago. It goes for pathos and tearjacker, exemplary in scene where Theodor gives a musician his father’s watch to play his a forbidden song. This scene that could’ve symbolized his disrespect for past and memories, is turned into a drunken singalong full of pathos, instead.
Nominally circling the life achievement of the importantly writer, it's just another trashy comedy.
Kovacevic is cut out for better than this. In dramas, he's capable of dealing with universal themes on metaphorical level. In film, he embarrasses himself.
P.S. But then Serbian film does suck for a decade or so now. There’s one old and a few new directors who keep doing something worth watching, while everyone else is so obsessed by gathering all elements that, in theory, should draw audience to the cinema, that their work is, in the end, a jumbled, incoherent mess. Then when noone goes to see Serbian films anymore, they blame someone else.
Edit: Yeah, entry was full of material mistakes, typos and stuff. I typed it on palm-top and was later really lazy to edit it.