Requiem for Mrs. J.: A tragicomedy about generations defeated by society
by Vladan Petkovic
- BERLIN 2017: Bojan Vuletić's second feature treats the effects of one’s social situation in an imaginative way
Serbian director Bojan Vuletić's second feature film, Requiem for Mrs. J. [+see also:
interview: Bojan Vuletić
film profile], manages to combine the best traditions of Serbian black comedy with tropes that we usually associate with the Romanian New Wave. But the film is not just a constructed amalgam of the two recognisable styles. The effects of recent Serbian history are finally not presented merely as the consequence of the 1990s wars, but take their cue from the mutated remnants of the socialist Yugoslav past and the transition that the society is still going through in an arduously roundabout way. The film world-premiered in the Berlinale's Panorama Special section.
Mrs J (Mirjana Karanović) is a middle-aged woman whose beloved husband (a high-ranking officer in the army) passed away a year ago. She is in a deep depression, living in an apartment in a New Belgrade block with her two daughters, elementary schoolgirl Koviljka (Danica Nedeljković) and twenty-something Ana (Jovana Gavrilović), her husband's mother (Mira Banjac) and Ana's boyfriend, Milan (Vučić Perovic).
The apartment is a mess, it looks like no one ever cleans it, and Mrs J just sits there, barely even watching television. Her depression is plain to see, and in the opening scene, we see her cleaning her husband's pistol. She intends to commit suicide in four days’ time, on the anniversary of her husband's death. But first, she wants to get all of the administrative paperwork done – which, in Serbia, can make dying very complicated.
The first thing she does, however, is to go to stonecutter Djordje (Boris Isaković) to add her name and picture to the headstone on her husband's tomb, and her two visits to him, plus their trip to the cemetery, are on a par with the funniest and most piercing scenes from the Yugoslav black comedies, with Isaković completely stealing the show.
But things get complicated for Mrs J when she tries to get the certificate attesting her past 20 years of employment, in order to update her medi-card. The scenes in the social security department and her old, defunct factory will feel to arthouse audiences like something out of the Romanian New Wave. But Serbia had a similar past, except that filmmakers and audiences tend to disregard it and focus on the wars and their consequences. Of course, the actual situation comes from a combination of the two, and Vuletić juxtaposes the realism of the transition with nightmarish memories through which Mrs J sleepwalks in a couple of almost psychedelic scenes. And all of this works without a musical score, which in itself is quite a feat.
There are numerous other evocative details in the side characters that come in for particular scenes to complete the picture of how contemporary Serbian society has defeated generations of ordinary, decent, law-abiding, middle-class people that Mrs J represents. And newcomers Gavrilović, Perović and young Nedeljković give us a clear idea of how life in Serbia has started ruining the coming generations.
Karanović's and Isaković's performances are on an even higher level than their solid standards we are used to, while cinematographer Jelena Stanković, production designer Zorana Petrović, sound designer Boris Trayanov and editor Vladimir Pavlovski make for an excellent team that executes both the realistic and the oneiric aspects of the film to powerful effect.
Requiem for Mrs. J. is a co-production by Serbia's SEE Film Pro, Bulgaria's Geopoly Film, Macedonia's Skopje Film Studio, Russia's Non-Stop Production and France's Surprise Alley. Belgrade-based Soul Food has the international rights.