"The High Sun": Forever Young in the Balkans

in 37th Cairo International Film Festival

by Frédéric Ponsard

The High SunAlthough the film has not won the Fipresci Prize at the International Film Festival of Cairo, The High Sun (Zvizdan) has long been one of the most serious candidates. Dalibor Matavic looks back at the Balkan War- and with two sensational young actors, accurate cinematography and a script written by Matavic himself, eras and situations are intelligently crossed.

The High Sun highlights three love stories that take place over three consecutive decades, in two neighboring villages  both marked by long histories of mutual hatred. Besides ethnic tension in the Balkans, The High Sun is a film about the fragility and intensity of love. The fresh and deep young actors Goran Markovic and Tihana Lazovic feature in all three stores as war-crossed lovers, linking the narrative with a bridge of pain, revenge and redemption. Dalibor Matavic’s film is certainly not the first on the Balkan war, but it stands out for embracing 20 years of conflict, from the very beginnings which are marred by fear to the aftermath marked by reconciliation.

The first part takes place in 1991: two young adults struggle to live their love story because it takes place at the very beginning of the war. She is Serbian and he is Croatian. The film begins with a beautiful bathing scene at a lake. The sun is high and warms the bodies of the two young lovers, Jelena (Lazovic) and Ivan (Markovic). The moment feels suspended in time but this carefree summer abruptly ends when a military convoy passes by… and an emotional winter arrives. The Croatian village organizes a party for all inhabitants, and a fanfare of trumpets plays joyously. Ivan is an excellent trumpeter and looks forward to playing in front of his beloved. But her brother suddenly interrupts the concert, ordering his sister not to have fun and not to show off with “the other camp.” From then on, nothing will be as before, and tension mounts until the inevitable tragedy strikes. We recall Romeo and Juliet, but this time played out in the Balkans against a backdrop of ethnic war.

This part of the film is the shortest of the three. It is direct and does not reveal what led Croats and Serbs to fight. Hate is nevertheless there, palpably, in the eyes of the brother who does not accept his sister flirting with a Croatian. What is striking is that nothing distinguishes the two ethnic groups who have lived side by side and have blended over the centuries in this region. The faces, the clothes, the music are the same. The absurd antagonism stands out even more. A brother will kill one of his brothers and history will repeat itself.

With a magnificent metaphor, the film continues, but it’s now ten years later. The camera is embedded in a car and you go back to the same Croatian village, but time has clearly passed: the houses are riddled with bullet holes and sometimes even completely destroyed. The natural surroundings remain the same, but all that man has built is crumbling, clearly conveying the madness of war. Both actors are still the same, they did not age, but do not play the same characters making us realize that Dalibor Matanic’s film will not follow a conventional storyline. Tirana Lazovic plays Natasha, a moody young adult who returns to the family homestead in enemy territory to find it ravaged. Her mother wants to start all over again and try to forget the past, but Natasha can’t let go of her brother’s memory, as he was killed in the war. Her encounter with a young repairman (Markovic) from “the other side” has little chance of turning into a romance.

Both youngsters will have an affair, but there will be no forgiveness. Matanic endows this part of the film with greater intensity and complexity. The story he developing between the two young people is not a love story, but an expression of buried hatred, a war that eventually lasts because it is still engraved in their minds and bodies. Beyond the story between the two young lovers – with the hot erotic scenes this entails – we are also in the presence of a trio: Natasha’s mother is the only one who reaches out to the so-called enemy, even though she has also paid a heavy price in war. Everything is said: in a war, there are no winners or losers.

The final part takes place 10 years later in 2011. We meet Goran Markovic one last time. He plays Luka, a young man who returns to his native village to go to a rave. His relatives welcome him warmly, but we sense that the feeling is not mutual. As in every family, there are hidden secrets – and these date back to the war between the Croats and the Serbs. Luka goes to visit his ex- girlfriend, Marije, who gives him an icy reception. Again, there are many unspoken words and false appearances between the young Croatian man and the young Serbian woman who obviously has not forgotten the past. The rave will allow the young lovers to meet again and not compromise their better future.

The artistic success of the film is due to several factors, notably the two dazzling young actors. They successively play three different roles and characters which are worlds apart. Tirana Lazovic first plays a carefree Serbian, before taking on the mantle of a young Serbian determined to seek revenge and Goran Markovic first interprets a reckless Croatian musician, then a devoted craftsman and finally a reserved and thoughtful young man. It is as if to say that the war has affected the entire population at different levels and at different times… The cinematography is also of great acuity. On one hand, Matanic uses big open wide shots capturing the beauty and vastness of an immutable nature – the crystal clear and purifying waters of the lake serving as a leitmotiv throughout the film. On the other hand, he films close-ups of people in their homes that still bear the scars of war. It brings both intense and violent moments and others which are suspended and timeless. A tour de force.

The film was awarded the official selection “Un Certain Regard” prize by the Cannes Jury, and has received more than a dozen awards  at other international festivals. It has also won the FIPRESCI Prize at the Cottbus Film Festival. Matanic’s movie is also Croatia’s Oscar-entry for best foreign-language film.

Edited by Karsten Kastelan