IN ANTICIPATION OF THIS YEAR'S TORONTO INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL (TIFF 2012) THERE ARE A NUMBER OF EXCITING NEW WORKS FROM COUNTRIES WITHIN THE FORMER YUGOSLAVIA. HERE'S A REVIEW OF A BLAST FROM THE PAST - A GREAT SERBIAN PICTURE AVAILABLE ON DVD AND MADE MANY YEARS BEFORE THE POST-COMMUNIST STRIFE AND CIVIL WARS. ODDLY, WATCHING THIS CLASSIC FILM NOW AND COMPARING IT TO CONTEMPORARY WORKS FROM THE SAME REGION, ONE MIGHT THINK NOT MUCH HAS REALLY CHANGED AT ALL OTHER THAN A FEW BORDERS.
Starring: Ivan Paluch, Annie Girardot, Eva Ras
A simple minded young woman begs for food from a rail worker who's been ogling her. Dangling a bit of his lunch as if it were a carrot before a horse, he leads her into a field and rapes her. Later, she staggers through the woods gnawing on a crust of bread and another man drags her into the bushes and rapes her. After satisfying his urges, he takes her to a wedding celebration where she is encouraged to humiliate herself for the amusement of all the townsfolk gathered there and is furthermore urged to humiliate the bride by removing the newly married woman's veil and headpiece and wear it while dancing to the music of a traveling Gypsy folk band. Much later on in the movie, the bruised, bloody, savagely beaten corpse of the same mute, mentally challenged young woman lies on a wooden bench in a filthy shack, her eyes frozen - open in terror - her last emotion before the last beat of her heart.
This is Serbia.
The young woman's name is Goca (Eva Ras) and while she is not the protagonist of Alexandr Petrovic's powerful, semi-neo-realist drama It Rains In My Village, it is her heart and soul that seems most central to the despair related in the narrative.
Telling the simple tale of a handsome, shy swine herder Trijsha (Ivan Paluch) who is drunkenly duped by his equally jack-hammered buddies at the local bar into marrying the mute, mentally challenged Goca, this is a film that never holds back in exposing the brutal, ignorant alcohol-fueled misery of life in a Serbian village in 1968. This is a patriarchal world where women are seen, but not heard - save for their fake cries of ecstasy while being drunkenly ploughed or the cries of pain and terror as they're beaten by their Neanderthal husbands.
Goca, being mute, cannot scream. Her eyes, however, tell tales beyond any words.
Trijsha toils with his herd of swine, spending as much time away from his wife and their eventual newborn child as possible. He spends downtime in the bar, bowling with his buddies on the rickety makeshift alley and drinking.
Booze is the only thing that seems to numb the pain, but it never really does the trick. Trijsha falls madly in love with Reza (Annie Girardot) the new teacher who comes to town. She's from the city, and unlike the local women, she's her own woman. She takes whomever and whatever she wants - using her beauty and seemingly insatiable appetite for sex. Trijsha's stud qualities keeps her amused for awhile, but when she dumps him for a new succession of suitors, he drinks himself blind, beats his wife to death, drinks more, passes out and allows his elderly father to take the rap for the murder.
Other than booze, the only other thing that seems to mean anything to anyone in the village are the folk songs of their ancestors - played by gypsy musicians at weddings and in the local bar. Folk music fills the open air and permeates the spirits of the men as they continue to lead the brutal, aimless lives.
Though they live under the shadow of Communism, the Orthodox Church still, in its blessed patriarchy, reigns over all and whatever spare money anyone has goes to rebuilding the church - a ramshackle, bombed-out mess from the war. Their pathetic attempts to hold a Communist Party meeting is an excuse to drink and discuss what they need from the party. The needs are for the collective, so to speak, but they're self-serving and certainly no in the supposed spirit of the movement.
The village teems with mud, puddles and pigs (not just the men). Life plods along, punctuated by occasional bursts of violence and the denizens of the village hurling insults at each other - fuelled by macho posturing and, of course, booze. This is life as it was during Communism, but it's obvious it always was this way and would, in fact remain - long after the fall of Communism.
In life, squalor, ignorance and repression breeds more of the same and this is easily one of the most savage indictments of poverty I've ever seen. It's also a raw, unflinching portrait of life in Eastern Europe - a life that is sadly, not much different now. (Hey, it's not just Serbia. Recent trips to Ukraine suggest this way of life permeates many other Slavic countries. Life was always cheap in the "Old Country" and continues thus. Watching this movie made in 1968 shocked me as I felt like I was wandering through villages in contemporary Ukraine.)
Director Petrovic brings his roots in the documentary tradition to full bear in this classic of Eastern European cinema. My longtime e-pal and colleague Michael Brooke recently reminded me of the great Petrovic picture I Even Met Happy Gypsies and how Emir Kusturica owed his entire career to that movie. That is indisputable. Certainly all through It Rains In My Village, Kusturica was always in my mind. God knows I love Kusturica, and It Rains In My Village is a film that had a similar emotional response from me, though frankly, I found it had even more resonance than even my favourite Kusturica Underground. The performances Petrovic elicits in Village aren't pitched as high and, in fact, there are few films that feature a performance as delicate and exquisite as that delivered by Eva Ras as the doomed Goca. For me, it's on a par with some of the best work from Giulietta Masina. Like the aforementioned Petrovic picture I Even Met Happy Gypsies, It Rains In My Village was in competition for the Palme d'Or at Cannes, but seems to be largely forgotten.
This must change.
It Rains In My Village is definitely an important work to be seen. It's available as part of the on-demand MGM Limited Edition Collection DVD-Rs. Its subtitles have been poorly translated and given that folk music is so important to the movie, it's a shame nobody bothered to translate any of the songs sung by the gypsy bands in the film. My knowledge of Ukrainian and Russian are rudimentary enough that I was able to make out the gist of the songs due to the similarity of many words in Serbian, but I know I was missing many of the subtleties and poetic qualities of the lyrics. This movie, if not all of the work by Petrovic deserves better than this and one hopes that wither Criterion or Kino will dive in to the rescue. The picture transfer comes from a mediocre source, but the grain is clearly intentional, so this is not as much an issue.