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Films by Lordan Zafranović

Lordan Zafranović (born in Maslinica on the island Šolta, Croatia, in 1944) began creating his, in Croatian terms, quantitatively extremely rich opus (fifty amateur and professional theatrical and TV films) in 1961, in Cine-club Split. In five years that he has spent there, his poetics developed from a ’fluid’, melancholic, neo-romantic existentialism (for example, in The Story, 1963; The Diary, 1964) into a more harsh, manipulative existentialist variation that included transparent eccentricity and absurdism along with an inclination towards a more open treatment of sexuality and naturalistic, grotesque ’roughness’ (The Concert, 1965; Rainy /Innocent Saturday/, 1965).

The later orientation would dominate in the long, professional phase of his work on short films (and middlemeter) among which stood out the middlemeter trilogy Waltz /My First Dance/ (1970), Ava Maria /My First Inebriety/ (1971), and Nightmare (1972). In 1973 he would integrate this trilogy in the motion picture A Chronicle of a Crime, which won a prize at the Chicago festival. This period reflected certain Zafranović’s qualities that would characterize his whole future filmmaking: extremely weak treatment of the narrative-dramaturgic-characterisation layer of the work, while on the other side, he displays a significant talent for creating stylistic atmosphere. On the thematic level, he was preoccupied with the manifestations and the nature of evil in man, which regularly included, seldom very explicit, treatment of sex and violence, in other words, the archetypal motives of Eros and Thanatos.

Zafranović graduated film direction in 1971 at the Film Academy (FAMU) in Prague in the class of the American Academy Award winner Elmar Klos. During his studies he also produced his first long feature Sunday (1969). In 1975, he started his consistent work on long features. His motion picture opus can be divided in the two basic groups: existential, metaphysical, erotic films and historical-political films. The first group consists of Matthias’ Martyrdom, 1975; Angel’s Bite, 1983/84; Haloa — Whores’ Holyday, 1988; Lacrimosa /The Vengeance is Mine/, 1995; furthermore, we could also include here his two earlier films Sunday and A Chronicle of a Crime. The second group includes the films Occupation in 26 Pictures, 1978; The Fall of Italy, 1981; and Evening Bells, 1986.

The first group consists of films that combine existentialist, meditative, metaphysical-eschatological elements and the poetics of the so called soft porns, while the second group deals with the period of the World War II. Films of the later group, although they were dominated by the ’practical’ political problematic, still inherited erotic motives prominent in the films of the earlier period. However, the poetics of aestheticized sex, violence and grotesque, along with serious problems with the film narration and characterisation structure are characteristic of both periods. In terms of quality, his existential-metaphysical-erotic movies are rather average, while the historical-political trilogy rises above average, especially Evening Bells (story about the destiny of a communist, an intellectual revolutionary and his family, encompassing the period from 1926 till 1948). This one is probably the best of his works, in which he has mastered the fragmentary-elliptic narrative layer, and has skilfully managed to articulate and distinguish characters while tuning down his directorial-stylistic intrusions thus creating a very impressive atmosphere. Furthermore, most of the characters are positive figures displaying warm emotions, which is quite unusual for often misanthropically oriented Zafranović.

A synthesis of Zafranović’s existentially metaphysical and historically political opus was his long documentary The Twilight of the Century /L. Z. Last Will/ (1993) that mechanically and pretentiously combines scenes from the period of the rise and rule of nazi-fascism, i. e. the Ustasha movement in Croatia, scenes from the trial to the Ustasha minister Andrija Artuković in Zagreb, clips from Zafranović’s previous movies, and scenes of the author himself ’wisely’ explaining the nature of film art and evil in man.

Lordan Zafranović is the author very much marked by the so-called Mediterranean circle, and his opus naturally connects to those of Fellini, Visconti, Pasolini and Bertolucci. They share a similar climate, similar ambiance, similar inclination to display existential emptiness, erotic, decadent, grotesque, violent. Formula Eros plus Thanatos particularly links Zafranović to Pasolini and Bertolucci, with whom he also shares the interest in political films. With later in mind, we might also enlarge this list by adding Liliana Cavani and her Night Guard, and, of course, Visconti’s Twillight of Gods, while The Garden of Finzi-Contini by Vittorio De Sica and Fellini’s Armacord do not share the above mentioned characteristics.

Within Croatian cinema, Vatroslav Mimica, also of Mediterranean origin (and Dalmatian) could be said to be Zafranović’s kinsman since much of his work deals with (warlike and universal) evil, and also uses existentially meditative approach and the so-called aestheticized style with significant influences of the elements of naturalism and grotesque; the later qualities link Zafranović to yet another Dalmatian (Islander) — Ante Babaja. However, one must emphasize that both Mimica and Babaja were quite superior to Zafranović. Within the region of Yugoslavia, Zafranović’s closest kinsman was Montenegrin Živko Nikolić, who shared Zafranović’s Mediterranean ambiance, erotic and violent motives, ecentricity and narrative ’skill’.

Lordan Zafranović is a distinctive figure in Croatian cinema without whome this milieu would be if not poorer than certainly much more sterile. He was the first, and so far the only Croatian filmmaker who systematically exploited erotic and violence then, while on the other hand, reckoning with Ustasha history and the ghosts of racism, he was actually following the path of the New Testament and its moral about the thorn in somebody else’s eye that becomes a log in our own. Lordan Zafranović certainly does not belong to the creatively most important Croatian film authors, nevertheless, his poetics has intriguing and encouraging elements, while his opus surely includes two anthological works (Afternoon /The Gun/; Evening Bells) that make his presence on the map of Croatian film history quite unavoidable.

Damir Radić

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