A Strange and Delightful Excursion

in 20th International Motovun Film Festival

by Mario Slugan

Twelve films competed in the main program of this year’s Motovun Film Festival and, curiously enough, both the main prize and the critics’ prize were awarded to the same film: Valeska Grisebach’s Western, an intriguing exercise in genre which relocates the frontier of the American western to Eastern Europe while positioning German laborers and local Bulgarians as the colonizers and the Native Americans, respectively.

My favourite film, however, was Igor Bezinovic’s feature debut A Brief Excursion (Kratki izlet), which just a week prior to Motovun won the Grand Prix for best Croatian feature film at the neighbouring Pula Film Festival. The film is a loose adaptation of Croatian modernist writer Antun Šoljan’s novel of the same name, in which a group of friends set out to find some frescoes in a church somewhere in Istria. Conveniently enough, Motovun – the festival’s titular town – is located in the very heart of Istria, so Bezinovic makes a delightful move in situating the opening of his film not only in that very Motovun but also at the very time that the festival is taking place. Motovun Film Festival, therefore, becomes a privileged site for engaging with the movie, as the viewer can delight in recognizing the scenes from his or her immediate surroundings – the city gate entrance where young people gather to drink, the backyard hotel terrace where parties take place, the camp at the foot of the mountain where the unforgiving sun exacerbates hangovers by not letting anybody sleep in after 9am. If you attended the festival in 2016, there is a good chance of catching a glimpse of yourself in the film.

At this point, one could be forgiven for thinking that the main reason I am so favorably inclined towards the film is because I have been frequenting Motovun Film Festival on and off since 2004. For a moment, even I wondered whether the key reason why I enjoyed the film so much was because it functions as a sort of a personal photo album – it shows me the places and the people which have meant (and continue to mean) much to me. But I reached a decisive “no” as the answer to that question, for there was another film in the program – Miroslav Sikavica’s Louder than Guns (Glasnije od oružja) – which, while doing precisely what I was worried about, differs significantly from A Brief Excursion. Sikavica’s film, a documentary about the relationship between music and propaganda during the 1991-1995 Yugoslav Secession War in Croatia, while very well shot and executed, owes its greatest effect to the activation of emotions viewers associate with the music and the period in question. And this really functions only if one has personal memories of early 1990s Croatia and its accompanying soundtrack.

Bezinovic’s A Brief Excursion, by contrast, works perfectly well without any appeal to personal experience of the festival and the town of Motovun, for the film truly starts only once the protagonists leave Motovun and, after their bus breaks down, set out on foot to find the church and its frescoes. What follows is an exercise in modernist sensibility in which each time one of the group disappears – the pilgrimage starts off with seven people – the film defies the expectations of narrative realism. My favourite disappearance is the second last one, in which the remaining trio comes across a band of marauding zvoncari: bellmen who, according to local custom, dress up in sheepskin with animal heads and march around to scare evil ghosts by producing copious amounts of noise. In a violent montage of sounds and images, one of the remaining pilgrims becomes so intoxicated by the ritual that he joins in and disappears into the sunset to continue the prowl with these newfound revellers. For a film with a very limited budget, the audiovisual impact of such sequences is quite stunning. In other words, although Bezinovic uses non-professional actors and often, after choosing the camera position, simply turns the camera on and lets it run, he is confident and effective when it comes to post- production techniques. A film definitely worth your time, even if you are not fortunate enough to catch it at Motovun.

Edited by Lesley Chow