Death of a Man in the Balkans: A Fatal Letter to Serbia

in 25th Panorama of European Cinema

by Carmen Gray

While Turkish drama Night of Silence (Lal Gece) by Reis Celik, which takes place almost entirely in the bridal chamber of a 14-year-old and her much older husband, was very deserving of the FIPRESCI prize we awarded it at the Panorama of European Cinema in Athens, Death of a Man in the Balkans (Smrt coveka na Balkanu) from Serbian director Miroslav Momcilovic was the other competition highlight. It also plays out in a single room – a Belgrade living room in which a man has just shot himself.

First on the scene of the suicide, alerted by the gunshot sound, is the unmarried composer’s neighbour Aca (Emir Hadzihafizbegovic). He’s soon joined by Vesko (Radoslav Milenkovic) from the apartment below. Determined to do the neighbourly thing, they wait for the police and paramedics to arrive. Meanwhile, others come and go – as well as their wives, an opportunistic undertaker who’s been tipped off by the ambulance crew, a pushy real estate salesman intent on showing the property to a prospective client despite the tragedy, even a pizza-delivery man. Black comedy infuses the brilliantly delivered dialogue, as the nervous chit-chat of those present shows up in the vein of Romanian new wave hit The Death of Mr. Lazarescu (Moartea domnului Lazarescu) a Serbian social climate of cynical disregard and systemic dysfunction.

As Vesko takes liberal swigs from the dead man’s raki (citing a tradition of drinking to the departed), conversation ranges: from whether the deceased was gay, the quality of his decor (Aca laid the cheap ash-wood parquet flooring), his top-notch German tool-set (which his neighbours have a covetous eye on), attempts to recall his first name, his loud music rehearsals which had kept Vesko awake, the probable decrease in apartment real-estate values the death will prompt, the need to look presentable for any potential television crew… Arriving late on in the piece (“traffic problems” is the excuse), the lackadaisical paramedics and police push plausibility to its limit as their crass neglect of duty verges on but stays just the right side of caricature.

In Night of Silence we observe both bride and groom empathetically – it’s not that the husband wants to dominate this near-child; he’s as entrapped by marital tradition as she is. Here too in Death of a Man in the Balkans no character is malicious – they are all hostage to farcical community rot and dysfunction, viewing each other with skeptical suspicion, and all as much victims as perpetuators.

A single uninterrupted take from the point-of-view of a webcam mounted on the dead man’s computer carries us through this short film. The set-up means it could easily have been a stage play (Momcilovic, who wrote the script as well as directing, is also a playwright), but wonderfully naturalistic, whipsmart performances from both Hadzihafizbegovic and Milenkovic as the neighbours keep us fixated on the cramped domestic space with ease. It’s a pleasingly simple and effective means of making its pitch-black satirical point, as the very late realisation (with the arrival of the forensic inspector) they are being recorded effects a transformation in the hypocritical visitors. In this, the film functions as a suicide note to the composer’s region. In the end, any mystery surrounding the solitary man’s personal circumstances seems irrelevant – in a society such as this, does a suicide need any additional reason?  

Carmen Gray