A 1950s Belgrade reactor leak presents opportunities for medical experimentation in this semi-fictionalised drama
Dir: Dragan Bjelogrlic. Serbia/Slovenia/Montenegro/North Macedonia. 2023. 119mins.
The fission and fusion of human relationships form the unstable core of Serbian director/co-writer Dragan Bjelogrlic’s Guardians Of The Formula, a conventional but mostly engaging medical procedural set in the France and Yugoslavia of 1958. Dramatising a Paris professor’s innovative experimental treatments on four nuclear researchers irradiated by a Belgrade reactor-leak, the Serbia-Slovenia-Montenegro-North Macedonia co-production — full title Guardians of the Formula: Chain Reaction — won the Variety Piazza Grande Award after world-premiering at Locarno.
A fascinating historical footnote long overdue screen treatment
The sudden topicality of the nuclear-adjacent theme - thanks to Oppenheimer - and the presence of Alexis Manenti from Ladj Li’s Oscar-nominated Les Miserables in the leading role — dour, dogged, brilliant Professor Georges Mathe— could see the film attract wider attention. There may be limited prospects in France (the film is fundamentally a tribute to maverick Gallic genius) and brighter ones in ex-Yugoslavian territories following the film’s regional premiere at Sarajevo. Despite Belogrlic’s strenuous attempts to amplify the story’s cinematic angles, however, it comes across as a prestige item for the small screen.
Both of Bjelogrlic’s last two features, football-themed See You In Montevideo (2014) and musical biopic Toma (2021), were significant hits in Serbia, where he ranks among its most recognisable actors. He takes a supporting role here as Leka Rankovic, crusty boss of the Vinca Institute — a nuclear-research facility just outside Belgrade, founded in 1948 during the first years of the Yugoslavian republic and still operational today. His star physicist Dragoslav Popovic (Radivoje ’Rasa’ Bukvic) is working on a programme supposedly dedicated to finding new energy sources for Yugoslavia. In fact, the hush-hush parallel goal is nuclear-weapon capability for a socialist state that, for decades, pulled off a deft balancing act between east and west.
The narrative proceeds on twin tracks, alternating fluently (often via match-cuts) between events leading up to the contamination in Belgrade and the treatments weeks later in Paris. The emphasis is very much on the genial friendships and even potentially romantic passions that develop between the stricken Yugoslavs and their French benefactors. The lively ensemble (including ever-reliable Olivier Barthelemy as a secret-service agent) is headed by Manenti and Bukvic as two men of roughly similar age and temperament, divided by ideology but ultimately finding a respectful common-ground.
This is obviously a fascinating historical footnote long overdue screen treatment. The screenplay by Bjelogrlic, Vuk Rsumovic and Ognjen Svilicic is an adaptation of Goran Milasinovic’s 2017 novel The Vinca Case, but the fictionalised nature of Milasinovic’s book allows Guardians Of The Formula a certain poetic license in dealing with the facts.
Editor Milena Predic, who has worked on several Bjelogrlic projects in the past, keeps things moving at a brisk clip, the sense of urgency underlined — sometimes far too strongly — by Aleksandar Randjelovic’s near-incessant, prominent score. Bjelogrlic’s attempts to give the picture the air of a Hollywood drama (or even thriller) can veer towards the heavy-handed.
His trump card is using Manenti as the calm, still centre of the film. Best known for live-wire performances — he won a Cesar for his barnstorming turn as the domineering Paris cop in Ly’s Les Miserables (which he also co-wrote) — Manenti here deploys restraint to craft a delicate characterisation. As the morally-minded, politically-astute Mathe, a veteran of the Resistance, anti-communist, anti-nuke, he becomes the prism through which complex ideological currents of the Cold War (only cursorily sketched by the screenplay) fleetingly come into clearer focus. Short of stature and unassuming in demeanour, his Mathe nevertheless exudes an imperious, implacable competence that alters the atmosphere in any room he enters.
Production company: Cobra FIlm
International sales: Soul Food Films, firstname.lastname@example.org
Producers: Dragan Bjelogrlic, Dragan Solak
Screenplay: Dragan Bjelogrlic, Goran Milasinovic, Vuk Rsumovic (based on the novel “The Vinca Case” by Milasinovic)
Cinematography: Ivan Kostic
Production design: Jovana Cvetkovic, Jelena Sopic
Editing: Milena Predic
Music: Aleksandar Randjelovic
Main cast: Alexis Manenti, Radivoje “Rasa” Bukvic, Lionel Abelanski, Ognjen Micovic, Anne Serra, Jeremie Laheurte, Olivier Barthelemy