Država (2013)

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A strange Serbian psychological tale in which nothing need be as it seems and reality is eerily malleable!
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vt The State
Serbia / 75 minutes / color + some bw / Connections, Echo Dir: Jelene Marković Pr: Jelene Marković, Saša Radojević Scr: Saša Radojević Cine: Ana Božinović, Ksenija Livada Cast: Ana Stefanović, Jelene Marković, Milutin Petrović, Aleks Tsimerlis, Amra Latifić, Ljuma Penov, Svetlana Bajić, Stefan Arsenijević, Miroslav Hristodulo, Vlasta Velisavljević, Šaban Jašan, Ivan Tokin.

The State - 0 opener

Like the Norwegian movie Blind (2014), which I discussed on this site a few weeks ago, Država involves us in the lives of imaginary people. There the resemblance more or less ends because, while Blind presents itself as a fairly seamless whole, Država is content with a much more fragmentary approach, with constant reminders that what we’re watching is a mere artifice. Even despite those reminders, the movie succeeds in getting us involved with the characters, perhaps largely because of a very strong performance from the engaging Ana Stefanović in the central role.

A movie director, Jelene (Marković), is in the process of dreaming up her next feature, looking for inspiration as she rambles in and around Belgrade. She decides her central character will be Maria Pavlović (Stefanović), an attractive lecturer in media studies whose mother died some while ago and whose father is sick in the hospital with something unspecified. Initially Jelene imagines that Maria has a dog, but she soon decides the woman would be better off without it.

Maria visits her father, Dr. Pavlović (Velisavljević), and finds him in surprisingly good fettle. However, he’s paranoid about enemies who, he believes, will ensure he never leaves the hospital alive. Even though Maria has already encountered the creepy Dr. Hristić (Arsenijević)—and repels his amorous attentions (but she’s used to that)—she pooh-poohs her father’s concerns. Yet Dad insists they go out into the hospital gardens so that he can tell her his secret.

The State - 1 Hristic tries to chat up Maria

Hristić (Stefan Arsenijević) tries to chat up Maria (Ana Stefanović).

Years ago he was working in the Congo among cancer victims when he discovered it wasn’t really cancer that was killing them: they were being poisoned. He’s still racked with guilt becausethey all died, but now he has succeeded in devising an antidote to the lethal poison. For security reasons, he’s divided the formula into three files that he’s hidden in three separate locations around Belgrade. He gives her cryptic clues (which are never properly presented to us) so that she can locate the files—in other words, we’re being set up for a sort of tongue-in-cheek Dan Brownian clued search.

The State - 2 Dad tells Maria of his formula 2

Dad (Vlasta Velisavljević) tells Maria (Ana Stefanović) about his formula . . .

The State - 2a Doc Hristic and the secret policeman (Hristodulo) spy on Maria and her dad

. . . while Hristić (Stefan Arsenijević) and the secret policeman (Miroslav Hristodulo) spy on them.

We see Hristić and a sinister government official (Hristodulo) spying from a high window on Maria and her father as they talk, so perhaps Dad’s paranoia wasn’t so ill grounded after all.

Back at the university where Maria teaches, her colleague Professor Savić (Latifić) attempts none too subtly to pump her for Dad’s secret—it’s in the interest of the state that Maria should divulge it. Maria resists the pressure.

The State - 3 Savic tries to worm secret of formula out of Maria

Savić (Amra Latifić) tries to worm the secret of Dad’s formula out of Maria.

Jelene hasn’t invented the character of Savić from scratch. Years ago Savić used to teach philosophy to the young Jelene (Bajić) and her pal Natalija (Penov). Several of their tutorials (in black and white) are scattered through the movie, as we see the two girls adopting the roles of Plato and Thrasymachus in discussing the merits and otherwise of Plato’s ideal state.

The State - 4 Savic as she was in Jelena's memories

Savić (Amra Latifić) as she lives on in Jelena’s memories.

The State - 7 Natalija (l) and Jelena create a dialogue

Natalija (Ljuma Penov, left) and Jelene (Svetlana Bajić) create a dialogue.

The State - 8 The young Jelena

The young Jelene (Svetlana Bajić).

Savić isn’t the only one trying to worm the secret out of Maria. There’s also a Belgian boy, Mark de Val (Tsimerlis), one of her students—and a man to whose advances Maria, unusually, finds herself responding. She fends him off initially but with obvious reluctance; later in the movie, despite openly admitting that she knows he’s a bad person who’s seducing her purely in order to get the information from her, she enlists his help in find the files and takes him to her bed.

Maria: “Who are you really?”
Mark: “I work for the state. That’s who I am.”

Mark eventually persuades her that her father hasn’t told her the full truth. It seems (if Mark’s not lying) that Dr. Pavlović in fact used to devise biological weapons and then sell them to the French. If those files should get into the wrong hands . . .

When Mark’s first introduced to the plot, Jelene announces that she hasn’t yet envisaged the character’s face, so she might as well just give him her own face until he becomes clearer in her mind. In other words, she plays the character herself initially, with Tsimerlis taking over the role in due course. It’s a gambit she uses more than once, and it’s an effective one in breaking down the walls between what we know to be real and what we know to be imaginary. The actress playing these characters is not just the Jelene who’s dreaming up a hypothetical movie but also Jelene Marković, Država’s actual director.

The State - 5 Mark as we first see him, played by Markovic

Mark as we first see him, played by Jelene Marković.

The State - 6 The 'real' Mark is revealed to us

The “real” Mark (Aleks Tsimerlis) is eventually revealed to us.

The changing of faces is something of a theme, in other words. Towards the end of the movie, Jelene tells us about Maria that “She’s changing. Her face, too, is now very different—like it comes from another story. And where is this story going?” Yet Maria, unlike some of the other characters, retains her same face throughout. Is Jelene really telling us that Maria, her invention, has now established an independent existence, that she’s made a transition from one state of being to another, that from here on she’ll be devising her own stories?

The State - 13 Maria pores over the map of Belgrade - where's a symbologist when you need one

Maria (Jelene Marković) pores over the map of Belgrade – where’s one of Dan Brown’s symbologists when needed?

Jelene/Marković takes a less temporary role in the movie’s secondary plot. Maria is out rambling in the woods when she comes across a boy, who’s been tied up by one of the “guards” who prowl these parts. In attempting to free Nenad, Maria is herself captured by the guard, an unkempt, eye-patched woodsman (Petrović). Exactly what the woodsman’s purpose is remains something of a mystery to me, I confess; it may be much clearer if you’re not trying to follow the plot through somewhat rickety subtitles.

The State - 11 Nenad

Nenad Jovanović (Šaban Jašan).

The State - 12 the woodsman

The woodsman (Milutin Petrović).

The woodsman soon lets Maria go, and she feels duty-bound to go find Nenad’s mom (Marković) to let her know where her boy is. Nenad’s mom proves to be a self-indulgent alcoholic. In voiceover, Jelene/Marković tells us that she feels capable of retaining the character rather than yielding it to another actor because, after all, she’s about the right age to be Nenad’s mother.

The State - 14 The secret policeman

The secret policeman (Miroslav Hristodulo).

It’s not just faces that can be temporary. Toward the end of the movie we’re given altered reprises of some of the earlier scenes. One of these is the attempt by Professor Savić to get information out of Maria. In the original, she did this while the two women were walking down a corridor at the university that was so exceptionally narrow they had difficulty going alongside each other without bumping elbows—or knocking one of the paintings off the wall. In the reprise it’s the same corridor with the same (I think) paintings, but it’s very much wider. Now the two women can go side-by-side quite comfortably.

The State - 15a

The State - 15b Mark and Maria may have become lovers, but can she trust him

Mark (Aleks Tsimerlis) and Maria (Ana Stefanović) may have become lovers, but can she trust him?

Although it’s the performance of the fascinating Stefanović, as Maria, that carries the movie, we shouldn’t ignore director Marković’s acting contribution, both as her alter ego Jelene and as Nenad’s drunken mother. As Jelene, she has a penchant for breaking into irrelevant little gymnastic routines—rather as Bollywood movies break into song at odd moments—and for posing in vertiginously dangerous places: high ledges, rooftops, etc. It’s as if she’s trying to make herself in some way more vivid than real life, or at least than the fantasticated adventures of her imagined characters. And the same is true for her boyfriend Ivan (Tokin), who’s mentioned a few times as if important to her but barely makes an appearance. Jelene’s living in something of a solipsist’s paradise, where everyone else’s existence revolves around and depends upon her own.

Visually, Država is a treat. There’s some fabulous location work around Belgrade, showing us that the city is, as Jelene tells us, full of juxtapositions of the beautiful and the ugly. By contrast with the location work we have some cinematographical trickery elsewhere, as in the scenes inside the hospital, where the colors are so bleached out that the actors could almost be performing in front of a white sheet. The technique’s far more effective than it sounds in description.

The State - 16 Maria in the bleached-out environs of the hospital

Maria (Ana Stefanović) in the bleached-out environs of the hospital.

At the end of the movie there’s a sort of summation of a few elements that have turned up before, either in the main narrative or in one of the black-and-white flashbacks to Jelene’s student days:

“The state ritually destroys all knowledge perceived as a threat to its own safety. To serve the state in the name of its security glorifies ignorance, albeit for the sake of a higher goal: preserving the secrecy of the state’s soul.”

Overall, while I found Država a joy to watch with much to challenge the intellect, a movie that I’m very glad indeed I’ve seen, I’m not sure that it can be considered a fully wrought piece. The fragmentary nature of it—the failure, really, to tie all the strands together for the finish—is quite obviously deliberate, but it means that we’re disappointed at the end by the lack of resolution: it’s a pleasant coitus, but alas a coitus interruptus.

The State - closer

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