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BELGRADE FEST 2020

Review: Vienna Hallways

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- The newest film by Serbian director Mladen Djordjević is a highly creative and engaging documentary inspired by a semi-autobiographical novel written by one of the protagonists

Review: Vienna Hallways

Serbian maverick filmmaker Mladen Djordjević built his highly accomplished but internationally underseen oeuvre on mixing fiction and reality in stories about people from the fringes of society, in films such as Made in Serbia (2005) and The Life and Death of a Porno Gang (2009).

His newest and most mature film, Vienna Hallways [+see also:
trailer
film profile
]
, has just world-premiered at Belgrade FEST, winning two awards (see the news). Billed as a documentary, the picture is inspired by a semi-autobiographical novel by the main protagonist, Serbian-born Viennese taxi driver Darko Markov. Austria has a large population of immigrants from the former Yugoslavia, who came to work as gastarbeiters (guest workers) following a 1966 agreement between the two countries, and the celebration of its 50th anniversary is the symbolic time marker for the film.

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Vienna Hallways follows Darko and two other taxi drivers, Milenko and Goran, as well as fortune teller Vladica, whom they all visit in much the same way as people in the West would go to a therapist. Similarly, they truly believe what Vladica tells them and carefully follow her rituals that aim to, among other things, remove black magic – which is especially important in the case of Darko, who apparently had an affair and is now trying to fix things with his wife, Ljiljana. In addition, this amateur Renaissance man, of sorts, is preparing a true gastarbeiter stage play with a group of other Serbian immigrants, which puts further strain on their marriage.

Meanwhile, Austrian radio informs us about new, drastic taxes for taxi drivers, and with Uber & co entering the market, Darko, Milenko and Goran do not see a future in their current profession. At the same time, they long for their homes in Serbian villages – they will never feel like Austrians, but now they have become strangers in their own communities as well. This identity split is actually the main underlying theme of the film.

Goran marries a Russian woman who, as a devout believer, strongly opposes his visits to Vladica – but he keeps on going, as Vladica has "seen" that an aunt has hidden a bunch of gold coins in a pear tree in his yard back home. So he tries to find this treasure, and an image of him naked to the waist, with a large cross hanging around his neck and a metal detector in his hand, humorously but accurately encapsulates his state of mind.

Milenko, who is, like Vladica, a Romani, owns a large piece of land and would like to try to grow fruit, but his neighbours tell him the situation with state subsidies is bad and also that their trees have a disease they cannot identify – but removing them would mean returning the subsidy money.

Although detailed, this lengthy description of the plot is just the tip of the iceberg that is Djordjević's multi-layered, enormously engaging and aesthetically consistent film. By contrasting images of clean, high-cultured Vienna and the muddy, impoverished Serbian countryside, the director has created an exciting dynamic that perfectly supplements the heroes’ antics. Of course, it is clear that at least some of the scenes were staged, and many were reconstructed from the protagonists' memories and treated as fiction, but this is exactly what Werner Herzog calls “ecstatic truth”. A short sequence in which Milenko, after a disappointing visit to his home village, shaves his head to give himself a Mohican with Taxi Driver playing in the background, and puts on a leather jacket to go off for another shift of driving, is a good example of how Djordjević can pinpoint the essence of a character in a playful and ultimately cinematic way.

Vienna Hallways is a co-production by Serbian companies Corona Film and Cinnamon Film.

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