Dir/scr: Jan Cvitkovic. Slovenia, 2005. 103mins.
A darkly comic curio, the second filmfrom Bread And Milk director Jan Cvitkovic has been flying the festival flag for Sloveniaever since its debut at San Sebastian - where it picked up the New Directors Award- and has since won best film prizes at Cottbus andTurin.
Revolving around a funeralspeaker, played with perfect deadpan comic resignation by GregorBalkovic, Gravehopping is a Balkan black comedy - with most of thecomedy in the first part and most of the black in the second.
The downbeat villagesurrealism of the film's rural Slovenian setting is reminiscent of Kusturica and Jiri Menzel, but the savage darkness that gradually clouds thefilm's sense of humour, and its main character's philosophical resilience tothe slings and arrows of fate, has much more in common with the 1960s 'BlackWave' associated with Yugoslav directors like ZivojinPavlovic.
It's a mark of Cvitkovic's ability in making us care about theseprovincial misfits that the film's uneven tonal structure does not send it offthe tracks, though many will come out of the cinema feeling more cheated thanshocked by the director's tragic final turn: it's as if he loses faith at thelast moment in the power of comedy to deliver psychological incisiveness orphilosophical depth.
It has been picked up byAlta Films in Spain and is likely to generate some interest in otherterritories with mature arthouse markets. Producerslooking for leftfield material suitable for a remake are also advised to have alook.
In one sense Gravehopping is abuddy movie - the buddies being hangdog Pero, who ispaid to give graveside orations at the funerals of complete strangers - and hislanky best friend Shooki (DragoMilnovic), a car mechanic who looks like a BalkanJohn the Baptist.
Pero is a jobless idler whose one real talent is toad-lib metaphysical pronouncements like "not everyone is born - but everyonedies". At home, he's caught uneasily between a widowed grandfather (Brane Grubar) who keeps tryingand failing to commit suicide in ever-more inventive ways, and a sister, Vilma (Natasa Matjasec),who is hopelessly infatuated with her abusive, absentee husband.
Shooki's main love interest is Pero'sother sister, the deaf-and-dumb Ida (Sonia Savic), anunfettered nature sprite whose sentimental, Chaplinesque portrayal becomes more than a littleirritating. Pero's own amorous thoughts tend towardspeppy Renata (Moica Fatur) - who is soon revealed to be darker than sheappears, damaged by her abusive, bullying father.
In fact few of theinhabitants of this sleepy rural village, with its seasonal fairs and harvests,are what they seem; behind the LittleHouse On The Prairie facade, there's an uglyseries of rooms straight out of Deliverance.
A good slice of the comiceffect is carried by Balkovic's sure sense of comictimbre and timing - as in a scene where Pero repeatsthe asinine sample sentences of an audio English course. There is also a cannysprinkling of comic cultural references that will entertain internationalaudiences - like a version of disco classic IWill Survive played by a local weddings and funerals band; or a scene inwhich Shooki is inspired to put blades on the wheelsof his bubble car after watching a scene from 1960s classic
After first-act crises like Vilma's shaky marriageare resolved, there are signals that the film is moving into darker, moreportentous waters. But the point of no return still comes as a shock: a brutalrape scene that has the courage, or the folly, to overturn the audience'sexpectations of how this hitherto gentle metaphysical romp is going to end. Thebucolic landscape that has filled up the cinemascope format turns menacing, andPero's fortune-cookie sermons on death are suddenly revealedto be both more meaningful than we (or he) had realised - but also ultimatelyuseless.
What grates is not so muchthis gear shift into tragedy, as the feeling that a film notable up to now forits lightness of touch has started to take itself a little too seriously forits own good.