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Seven Films by Ante Babaja — Their Pictorial Style

The paper is part of an extensive study of the stylistic specifics of pictorial approach in the films of a prominent Croatian filmmaker who was famous for his short feature films, documentaries and long feature films. The author of the paper analyses seven Babaja’s films: two short allegoric features Nesporazum/A Misunderstanding (1958), and Lakat/The Elbow (1959); Babaja’s first long feature, a highly stylized fable Carevo novo ruho/Emperor’s New Clothes (1961); an allegoric short feature Pravda/Justice (1962); a short documentary on teaching deaf children to speak Čuješ li me?/Do You Hear Me? (1965); a highly praised long feature Breza/The Birch Tree (1967); and a candid camera documentary Čekaonica/The Waiting Room (1975). Babaja’s general style developed from a highly stylised phase into a naturalist style, however, what makes the transition coherent is a careful choice of pictorial style in support of Babaja’s meditation stance, his reflections on the basics of human condition.

In his allegoric short features Babaja dealt with almost caricature topics, e. g. gallery visitors appreciate a mill-stone as a work of art in the context of abstract sculpture exhibition (A Misunderstanding); an office worker advances by ’elbowing his way through’ (The Elbow); a bystander watches an act of street violence — a man beating his wife — and only imagines his successful intervention (Justice). Actually, the main emphasis in these films was on the pictorial approach to a basically simplistic situation, an attempt to bring the irony of the situation in play by the use of rich pictorial stylisation devices. The intriguing choice of camera perspective, (e. g. view of the gallery visitors through the hole in the mill-stone), the use of wide angle lenses with strong perspective distortions, radical change of the angle of vision, a particular choice of details of visitors’ inattentive behaviour and insistence on visual analogies (on circles in ambience).

In The Elbow Babaja and his cameraman (Hrvoje Sarić) introduced a completely white background, high key photography, absence of shadows which anticipated a highly reduced pictorial approach in the feature Emperor’s New Clothes, where the characters and rare pieces of furniture were placed on an uniformly white background, only the film was in colour, and pure colours were stylistically used with costumes and props. In Justice, light was diffused (as in cloudy weather), but Babaja and his cameraman (Tomislav Pinter) have used an effect of live action animation (by dropping out phases of live action), a double exposure effect, and wide-angle movements along the sight line, which produced a caricature-like effect of the action of characters. With the documentary Do You Hear Me? Babaja made an exception in his approach: he chose a ’transparent’ stylistic approach witnessing a process of speech therapy for the deaf in a very economical manner. Still, one feels that this stylistic approach was carefully chosen: shooting the film indoors, close shots of patients and their efforts, an emphasized absence of ’intervening’ pictorial, sound and editing articulations.

The cameraman Nikola Tanhofer took special care in dealing with natural light, finding an excellent balance between the ’uncleanness’ of a given ambience light and its recognition functionality — achieving an atmosphere of spontaneity and a strong feeling of autonomous ’inner life’ of the situation at hand. There is a close analysis of the beginning and ending sequences of the film in the paper. Babaja’s most appreciated film — The Birch Tree (cameraman Tomislav Pinter) is an adaptation of a rural short story by the prominent Croatian writer Slavko Kolar. The film harmoniously combines naturalistic (anti-pastoral) approach to the rural environment and meditative stylisations. Naturalism mostly pertains to the choice of rough elements in rural social and natural milieu.

Meditative stylisations pertain mostly to the pictorial and editing style reminiscent of the famous Croatian school of rural naïve painting. Situation is frequently presented in a ’staged’ (tableau) style that keeps ’a viewing distance’, stimulating a more global, meditative approach to the presented situation. Pinter frequently uses filters to darken the sky, carefully modelling lighting in indoor scenes, while Babaja occasionally uses montage to build up a situation, introducing a more symbolic interpretation into play. This meditative streak became predominant in Babaja’s short documentary The Waiting Room (cameraman Tomislav Pinter).

Candid camera shooting of the people waiting relied on the lighting and visibility circumstances found at the scene of the shooting, however, a careful choice of minute details of people’s unconscious gestures and moves, and careful editing association of such shots invoked meditation on people’s hidden mental life. Following the line of analysis suggested by particular films, the paper also exposes some basic problems, e. g. problems of candid camera approach, problems of shooting in natural light, problems of high key photography, problems of harmonizing different stylistic devices, etc.


1. A MISUNDERSTANDING (1958); 2. THE ELBOW (1959); 3. THE EMPEROR’S NEW SUIT (1961); About stylisation with black or white; Reduction of space with white background; Reduction with limited choice of colours; 4. JUSTICE (1962); 5. Do You Here Me? (1965); Close analysis (1st shot; 2nd shot; 51st shot; 52nd shot, 53rd shot); 6. THE BIRCH TREE (1967); Naturalism; Stylistic elevation; General pictorial mood of the film; Naïve painting: naturalistic support; Brightness and Hue; Filters; Camera movements; Death as a theme: funeral procession; Composition as style; Basic characteristics of Breza’s pictorial style; 7. THE WAITING ROOM (1975); Bibliography

Silvestar Kolbas

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