Friday, November 21, 2008

A WONDERFUL NIGHT IN SPLIT (Ta Divna Splitska Noc, 2004)

Split is the second city of Croatia, located on the Adriatic coast, but from this account, courtesy of director Arsen Anton Ostojic, it could just be another suburb of Sin City. It's New Year's Eve and a street concert is under way. The camera looks down from a bird's-eye view, gliding over rooftops and peering into alleys. A man staggers and falls, calling out, "He came to get me." An old woman opens a window and screams for help. A group of American sailors hear her and prepare for action.

A cuckoo clock goes off while a couple makes rough love in a kitchen. They shift the table toward the stove so the woman can tend to her cabbage roles without interrupting the coitus. Maria is a bit of a masochist. She urges Nick to slap her during the act. The rumpus awakens her son Duye, who doesn't understand why the man is hitting his mom. He gets a gun out of a drawer, but nothing comes of it -- yet. But remember what happens when you see a weapon in a movie.

Nick heads out -- he has business in Munich, disappointing Maria, who'll be alone tonight with her boy. Our hero is on his way to Blacky's, blowing off Antish the panhandler on his way. Blacky gives him a package to take to Munich on the next bus. Before he goes, he heads back to his tenement apartment and frees his pet bird. He also passed those American sailors on the way -- they're looking for a prostitute.

Nick panics when cops board the bus, but he fights his way free and eludes pursuers in the station. We notice that someone else on the bus has a similar package, but stays on board. On a hunch, Nick opens the package and samples the contents: no good! Blacky has set him up. He heads back to Blackys and fights with him. He appears to choke Blacky out with an iron gate, but gets stabbed in the process. He heads back to Maria's place, and Duye confronts him on the stairs, gun drawn.

It turns out that Nick is the guy on the ground at midnight, and we've just caught up with the start of the movie. Just as we register that this is that kind of film, it's back in time again to 10:00 p.m. Now we follow Maja's desperate quest for a fix, which takes her past Antish and into Blacky's place just as Nick was leaving the first time. Blacky sends her away, but rethinks his refusal when a stuttering minion tells him about the sailors and their quest for prostitutes. He retrieves Maja, who like him can talk reasonable (dubbed) English to the sailors. She'll be paid in drugs to provide consolation to Frank, one of the sailors who's been dumped by his girlfriend. Frank is played by none other than Coolio, who was perhaps attempting to establish himself as a Cameron Mitchell for the 21st century.

Blacky borrows a room from an old widow, and has apparently done this often enough to warn her against peeping through the keyhole. Frank isn't that eager for consolation. He tries to engage Maja in conversation, which she indulges up to a point -- being desperate for the fix and all. He shows her a picture of the girlfriend, and ultimately explains that she dumped him because "I am a coward." He produces a gun and invites Maja to shoot him -- until he notices the needle tracks on her arm. Discovering that "you're a damn junky," he gives her some heroin he happens to have. As she cooks it up, he counts down the final seconds of the year before giving the old lady cause to scream, just as we remember from the start of the movie.

Let's turn back the clock two hours again and discover another couple making out in the street. Angela tells Luke that she doesn't want to start the new year as a virgin. They need a place to do the deed, and Luke knows someone who can provide one. They arrive at Blacky's just as the gangster, who's just had a rough encounter with the guys with the drugs, has placed a call with the cops to set up Nick at the bus station. Luke isn't interested in drugs tonight, and eventually he and Angela find their way to "the best place in the world," with a great view of the street and the concert. Then she offers him some acid, and they share it. They share a modest trip (Skidoo this isn't), united in the conviction that the building is leaning and might fall. They head for the roof and watch pigeons flying "to Neverland." Luke decides he ought to join them. He walks to the edge of the roof and is caught in a spotlight from below. As the crowd and the M.C. (who is Blacky's supplier) invite him to come on down, Luke feels certain that he's growing wings, and at the stroke of midnight we gain a new perspective on the events at the start of the film, or else we understand our original perspective.

* * *

Ta Divna Splitska Noc is slickly made with masterful aerial camerawork providing a commanding, nearly godlike view of the alleys of Split. If anything, it's too slick. Its flaw, for me at least, is its formalism, its self-consciousness of continuing the film noir tradition by way of Tarantino's non-linear narrative style. Ostojic's story is less like Pulp Fiction than like Stanley Kubrick's The Killing, which repeatedly went back in time to bring different characters forward to a common present. Still, in Tarantino's wake the non-linear approach has come to be a cliche that undermines the authenticity of the stories Ostojic wants to tell. This impression isn't helped by the fact that Split is made in glorious black and white -- too glorious, sometimes, in its homages to noir. Take a look.

The movie has its moments. I like the performers, and moments like the opening lovefest on the kitchen table rang true for me. I also appreciated the way Ostojic refrained from going crazy with Luke and Angela's acid trip. You actually appreciate better how fried they are because the director keeps an objective distance and lets the kids tell us what they're seeing. Overall, however, the movie didn't quite ring true for me. It seemed designed to catch the U.S. video market (hence Coolio and ample English dialogue in the Maja section) rather than appeal to shared Croatian experience. I should acknowledge, though, that the film ultimately isn't meant to ring true in the way I was expecting. The ending takes Split into the realm of urban fable or magical realism, depending on how you interpret it. If you anticipate this approach from the beginning, you'll better appreciate the movie's legitimate virtues. It's definitely worth a rental from a well-furnished library for neo-noir buffs and anyone curious about international cinema.

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