With Satire to Laughter and the Truth

in 22nd Panorama of European Cinema Festival

by Dubravka Lakic

Devil’s Town (Ðavolja Varoš), an urban, satirical black comedy about the state of a nation waiting in the entrance-hall of the European Union and “enjoying” the benefits of the so-called democratic changes, has proven to be universally acceptable and especially attractive for audiences in the West. It has already screened at several important world film festivals, and now also within the competitive program of the Panorama of European Cinema in Athens.

It is quite possible that such viewers have also recognized in Devil’s Town a certain similarity with Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction (1994), not only because of the mosaic-type structure of the film, but also because of the film’s characters themselves. None of them, not even those in Devil’s Town, can be said to be positive. On the contrary. However, the viewer becomes attached to them. This is so mostly because the first impression of them is deceitful, but each of them is different than the original picture we are given.

In essence, Paskaljevic’s heroes are characters who reflect Serbian reality in a tragic-comic manner: a girl who wishes to play tennis, but has no money for it; an intellectual mother who cleans the houses of nouveau riche ladies so as to provide a better life for her daughter; a businessman who has returned from abroad and who cannot get used to the strange manner of doing business in this country; children of tycoons; young ladies who seek to find wealthy “sponsors”; nervous taxi drivers who know all about everything and who blame everyone else for everything in life; tycoons who think they can do absolutely anything…

In short, it’s a gallery of strange people of dubious morality who believe they are living normally and doing good things. All of them feel real, but the question for Serbians is whether or not we want to admit this and clearly recognize it. Paskaljevic does not allow the audience to close their eyes and run away from the truth. In that sense, his film is merciless. Moreover, it is very committed, sociologically analytical, and – from the standpoint of aesthetics – modern and fresh.

The story of Devil’s Town is set on one single day during which the characters’ fates are intertwined and unexpectedly linked through a series of fragments with which Paskaljevic paints a fresco of present-day Belgrade that is brutally direct. The author’s language is also precisely such – explicit. The film’s shortcomings can be found primarily in Paskaljevic’s extremely elaborate screenplay. If certain fragments of the story were to be more concise and if Paskaljevic had omitted certain people from the (excessively) large gallery of characters, the film would have been more compact and even better. The rhythm of the film is good, while very brave, and what turned out to be very wise and correct was Paskaljevic’s decision for Devil’s Town to be a film largely without music. A resonant tone to the entire film is afforded by the creepy and inarticulate sound of the harmonica, which is repeated occasionally from the opening credits.

The director also chose an exceptional acting ensemble. Vlasta Velisavljevic is exquisite in the role of a retired gynecologist who fervently wishes once again to meet with the object of his profession. Lena Bogdanovic and Marta Bereš, as expensive prostitutes who survive an orgy and an assassination on a tycoon’s yacht, represent strong motors of the drama in this film. Lazar Ristovski as a frenzied taxi-driver is stunning, as is the contribution of Danica Ristovski in the delicately played role of a lost middle-aged woman who is running from reality.

Goran Jevtic has considerably colored the film with his original interpretation of a failed director and a drug addict. The scene is which he is trying to get money out of his dying father in order to shoot a movie – in which he would portray the Serbs as total lunatics, so as to curry favor with the West – at the same time playing for him the musical number from the future film is ingenious. A satirical definition of contemporary Serbian film that provokes sweet laughter.

Elsewhere in the large ensemble, quite promising film forces have proved to be actresses Jana Milic, Andrea Erdely, Marija Zeljkovic, Mina Colic and young Uroš Jovcic in the role of the rich family’s “little boy”.

What makes the film Devil’s Town attractive and valuable is, without doubt the exceptional, crystal clear and precisely framed photography of experienced cameraman Milan Spasic Papi. His contribution allows Devil’s Town to boast an intensified feeling for the picture of a society under a microscope. The editing dynamically follows the action, rendering the film quite fierce in all of its 82 minutes. As not too much money was invested in this movie, a lot also fell on the shoulders of Vladimir Paskaljevic who, apart from the screenwriter and director, was also the film’s editor, with the support of Petar Putnikovic. Congratulations for a successful debut should also be extended to debut producer Milan Tomic.

Edited by Glenn Dunks