by Vladan Petkovic
- Damir Cucic’s feature debut is a powerful story of a complex father-son relationship, made skillfuly in a blend of fiction, documentary and experimental forms.
The winner of the Grand Golden Arena for Best Film at the Croatian national Pula Film Festival, Damir Cucic's A Letter to My Father [+see also:
interview: Damir Cucic
film profile], did not even screen at the Roman amphitheatre the award is named after, a venue with 6,000 seats that fills up every night of the festival. And this was probably an advantage for this experimental blend of autobiographical documentary and fiction. Hardly material for the widest audience, a good portion of the film is made in form of video letters and features only two characters, neither of whom is very likable. At least on the superficial level.
The film opens, and takes a large chunk of its running time, with 40-something Son (Milivoj Beader) talking into camera, to his Father (Mate Gulin). Son, a failed actor, lives in Zagreb, and Father lives in Dalmatinska Zagora, a rural part of Croatia near the coast, just behind the mountains which separate it from the sea. The mentality of the region is crucial for the film- hard people from hard rocky hills- but one does not have to know it intimately to recognize the type of tyrant father, a rigid, narrow-minded partriarch that can be found anywhere in the world.
Father watches these video letters on his TV as his Son talks about the past, the things Father did to him, his mother and sister. These include, but are not limited to, verbal and physical abuse and humiliation. In order to annoy Father, but also because he really is an addictive personality, he keeps drinking brandy, smoking weed and snorting coke. And he talks about himself and how badly his life turned out, blaming it all on Father’s influence.
Father is watching this and commenting as if addressing his son, swearing and drinking his own brandy, and often we see his reflection in the screen of the TV. This approach directly illustrates the fact that Son grew to be very much like his father, despite all the effort, fuelled by hate, to avoid it. Father’s TV screen and Son’s camera become two sides of the mirror, both metaphorically and literally.
There is, somewhere deep beneath the animosity, an undisplayed love between the two, and it makes up the emotional core of the film. This is clear in the final, fantasy scene, where they meet in Father's house after his death. There is no switch in visual approach nor atmosphere, they are simply there, drinking, talking, arguing, but also laughing and singing together. They hate and love each other, the things Father was and Son has become. And it hurts the viewer, the love more than the hatred.
The films is based on Beader’s monodrama, and his face is in a close-up in all his video letters, filling up the screen, probably the most naked situation an actor can get into. He is loud, aggressive, cynical, desperate, and much more: this is one of the roles which transcend acting techniques, where the energy splashes out from the screen. This is life mixing with art to the extreme.
But Gulin actually has a harder role to play, a character who is, at least in the formal set-up, the bad guy in the story, but still has to be liked by the audience, as real human relationships are never black-and-white. In total contrast to Beader, his acting is low-key, never raising his voice or grimacing excessively, with dissapointment and rage (both at Son and himself) brimming behind the surface. The veteran actor deservedly won the Golden Arena for Best Supporting Actor at Pula.
A Letter to My Father is a multi-layered depiction of a complex relationship, made with honesty and skill, in a refreshing blend of forms. It will be welcome on the festival circuit, and its first international outing will be at Goteborg International Film Festival.