The Professional

in 27th Montreal World Film Festival

by Norman Wilner

Like a bad dream, Dusan Kovacevic’s The Professional (Profesionalac) grows ever more disorienting as its story develops. Perspectives shift, sympathies change, and both characters and audience are led to the realization that the history they think they know is not necessarily the history that actually exists.

The ProfessionalAdapted and directed by Kovacevic from his own stage play, The Professional is essentially one long conversation between two middle-aged men in present-day Belgrade. One is the wiry Teja (Branislav Lecic), a former university professor now running a publishing company; the other is a shambling visitor who says his name is Luka (Bora Tedorovic), and who has arrived in Teja’s office to tell him the story of his life. Not Luka’s; Teja’s. And who better to tell it than the secret policeman who’s shadowed him for nearly a decade?

That narrative conceit opens the door to a series of flashbacks which contrast Teja’s recollections of his own past with Luka’s more objective versions; after all, Luka was there for everything, and usually was the more sober of the two. We’re shown that Teja, who fancied himself the political radical during Milosevic’s reign, favored loutish proclamations of subversion (like, say, drunkenly demanding bar bands play outlawed protest songs) rather than actual revolutionary acts, while in the background of a scene we might glimpse Luka, despite a confessed loathing of his subject, acting as Teja’s reluctant guardian angel, a slave to the principles, and the professionalism, that led him to become a policeman in the first place.

The ProfessionalAnd it’s here that the real heart of the movie begins to peek out, as Teja slowly comes to understand that he hasn’t really been the master of his own destiny – even the romance that led to his academic downfall was the result of Luka’s surveillance, in a roundabout way – and comes to appreciate Luka’s grace in passing this knowledge along. Kovacevic’s easy way with his actors, and his unfailing sense of tone, allows this framing sequence to reveal its emotional undercurrents slowly but consistently, grounding the drama anew after each flashback sequence.

Kovacevic avoids narrative inertia by making the flashbacks aggressively cinematic, with dramatic camerawork and broader performances, while keeping the present-day encounter more theatrical, playing up the stage origins of the material. Teja’s office is lit with the harshness of a TV studio, and comic relief is provided by Natasa Nincovic as a wacky secretary who has a habit of barging in at the worst possible moment in an intimate conversation.

And by acknowledging the material’s stage origins this way, he allows the viewer to appreciate The Professional as a play, and to toy with the allegorical underpinnings in the text. Just as Teja is led to understand the way the world worked when the secret police were in charge, so can Serbia, as a nation, begin to deal with the realities of its immediate past … including the inevitable discovery that there was more to the political situation than simple black-and-white, us-and-them polarity.

It’s an obvious observation, of course – Danis Tanovic won an Oscar for making it as obvious as possible in No Man’s Land a couple of years ago, and Goran Markovic’s current Kordon hammers it home just as insistently – but it’s nice to see someone say it with wit and style.