Director Rajko Grlić is the author, together with writer and columnist Ante Tomić, of a film that has become a smash in southeast Europe. Four characters and an exam on the Constitution. Interview
The film "Ustav Republike Hrvatske " (The Constitution of the Republic of Croatia), by award-winning Croatian director Rajko Grlić, is enjoying great success throughout the former Yugoslavia and beyond. Mistaken by some as a comedy, the film features pro-ustasha professor Vjekoslav Kralj, who lives in downtown Zagreb. One day, he is brutally beaten by a group of teenagers in the street where he lives, after they see him dressed as a woman.
Vjekoslav, who lives in a large middle-class apartment, is assisted by neighbour Maja Samardžić, who lives in the basement and struggles with life as a nurse. Maja also helps Vjekoslav in caring for his paralysed father (from whom he inherited the radical political orientation) and is aware of the professor's transvestism and homosexual inclinations. In return, Maja asks Vjekoslav to help her policeman husband Ante pass the exam on the Croatian Constitution, needed to keep his job. Ante, however, is of Serbian origin, and soon tensions surface between him and Vjekoslav. "The Constitution of the Republic of Croatia" is, as the subtitle says, "a love story on hatred".
How did you get to collaborate with the screenwriter of the film, writer Ante Tomić?
Twelve years ago, we started working together on the "Karaula " project (the film was then released in 2006). Ante sent me the first chapter of a book he was writing and asked me if I was interested. I said yes and so our collaboration began. I wrote the first draft of the screenplay while he was still writing the book. Then we did "Let this remain among us" (2010), writing the script based on a treatment of mine. We then spent three years working on the script of the book "Čudo u Poskokovoj Dragi". It was supposed to be a comedy, a commercial hit. A great film, but unfortunately a bit expensive. We spent two years trying to raise the money; we collected half of what needed and we could not continue. In Europe it is very difficult to raise funding for a comedy in a minor language. European funds are much more oriented to co-finance serious stories. They are serious people and do not see comedy film as art.
We had to give up on this project, I hope temporarily, and then we decided to write a screenplay that we would be able to film on iPhone even if no one funded us. It took two years to write "The Constitution of the Republic of Croatia", a bit in America and a bit in Zagreb. We went to the HAVC (Croatian audio-visual centre), Eurimages and then Slovenia, Czech Republic, and Macedonia; so we collected what we needed for a low-budget film. And we filmed with calm and a timetable that gave me the chance to play a lot with the actors.
How did you come up with the title? Was it at the very beginning or at the end?
Titles usually change during filming, but usually I try to settle on one as soon as possible. I think that this film never had any other title. Ante and I discuss, focusing exclusively on characters for about six months. This film worked like this, too. Ante sent me an email about someone he knew in Split, a character who dresses up as a woman by night, and was beaten up and then helped by a woman. This was the initial idea. I added two other characters – what would happen if this figure had a father, and the woman lived in the same building and had a husband. So we slowly started to create these characters before starting to create a story with them.
Ante says it well – we create them, throw them into the water and then the story takes them out. So "The Constitution of the Republic of Croatia" suddenly appeared as the connection between these two male characters, the policeman in the basement and the professor in the middle-class apartment on the first floor. I had heard somewhere that every public employee in Croatia must somehow pass the exam on the Constitution of the Republic of Croatia. It seemed interesting for the story that the policeman, who is also a Serb, had to pass the exam and that the professor, a major right-wing Croat, had to help.
Only then, Ante and I started to read the Constitution. Like 98% of Croatian citizens, we had never read it. So we read it and we were amazed, because it is a book full of love and tolerance, that cares for minorities and weak people...we were sure that it was a good basis for the relationship between the two characters. Obviously, we did not want the film to serve the purpose to show the gap existing between every-day life and the Constitution – a 15-minute television report would suffice to this end, but one cannot build a film on this. But the stark contrast between what is written and what we live became the basis for the meeting and clash among the characters in the film.
Did this film come as a kind of reaction to the intensifying social and political tensions in Croatia? Has the story on the Constitution become more relevant than ever?
Politicians refer to the Constitution every day. It is always on their lips like a prayer. They apparently have their own reading of it. At some point, my distributors worried about sending out a film with such a terrible and repulsive title. "Who is going to see a film with this title?". So in a meeting I said, okay, let's put the subtitle "A love story on hatred". So this subtitle played with the title, indicating that it is a story about people and not the Constitution.
When you mentioned love and hatred, it refers to the relationships between Vjekoslav and Ante, and between Vjekoslav and his father. How does Maja fit in?
She is the catalyst of personal catharsis for both Vjekoslav and Ante; she breaks in them, they break through her. She has that real curiosity which is the first prerequisite of any love. I use the word love conditionally – it is not about physical love, it is not the love between a man and a woman or between a man and a man. As soon as we stop hating someone, we become curious to find out who they are. At the same time, it is the first step towards something human in us, and then it is a kind of love. We begin to take care of someone.
At the beginning of the film we find out something about the characters: we can start to care about them and follow them through the story. The same thing happens in human relationships; when you discover something then you start caring. Until then, people remain labels – Ustasha, Chetnik, Serb, nationalist Croat...but as soon as you find out that someone has a problem with the veins in their legs, when you find out something about them, they become a human being with a name and surname. And then a relationship begins that brings you to something I call love.
All this is related to the character of Maja. She has all this built-in in herself; first of all the curiosity, wanting to find out about someone. All people need to be heard. There are few listeners and she is just that. She is just the character that absorbs, because she had to have an abortion, because she has given up on life.
Why did you choose Serbian actor Nebojša Glogovac, who starred in other films as the Chetnik leader Dragoljub Daža Mihajović, for the character of Vjekoslav, the pro-ustasha homosexual Croat?
First of all, Nebojša Glogovac is a fantastic actor. The casting for this character lasted over a year. The characters of Ante and Maja were written with Dejan Aćimović and Ksenija Marinković in mind. During the writing, in my office in the United States, we had their photos hung on the wall. This helps a lot because you look at them and say, they would never say it like this or do that. While writing, we were not able to find an actor who could play Vjekoslav. I mistreated five talented actors, sent them back 5-6 times to see if I could somehow get to what this character needed to be. I could not, although each of them had elements of this character.
I like to “steal” parts of the personality from the actors, rather than just placing characters over them. So I decided to change music. Go for counter-casting. And I thought of Glogovac. He is a great actor and does not correspond to the character at all. I sent him the script, he read it, and agreed to come and try to film in Zagreb. We would dress him and make him up, try different scenes. Even Dejan and Ksenia would come. And these tests scenes made it clear – he was the right man.
I went through this whole process without ever thinking that he had played the character of Draža Mihajlović and made some questionable statements, and he knows it...Tomić and I then wrote the last draft in Vojvodina, in a farm, and he came to us. By accident, six months earlier, Ante Tomić had written an editorial for the weekly NIN critiquing the statement made by Glogovac – he massacred him, as they say in Zagreb. He wrote that he had mixed the characters and history, and that it is normal for actors to defend their characters, but they need to distinguish the characters from historical facts.
When he came to us in Vojvodina, we spent the first hour talking about this, because we knew it would be a burden that would accompany us later, so we wanted to immediately clear the air. And we succeeded very well. From there, we started working on the character.
He came to me in Istria. In Zagreb we passed the evaluation of the adequacy of the texts – the examiners were stunned by the speed with which Glogovac learned the parlance. He is Herzegovinian and it was easy for him. We were almost three months in Zagreb, we filmed for quite some time. He was always very focused on the film, he came prepared, and working with him was infinitely pleasant. In these fifty years of working with the actors, I do not know if I ever got more than what I needed in fewer words.
The last scene of the poisoning of the dogs leaves a pessimistic message...
The film, after all, has a fairy-tale style that suggests that we can still talk. When we started working on this film, Croatia was not in this shit yet. It happened with the arrival of Karamarko and Hasanbegović - with them, Croatia was sucked into the daily grind of hatred. Ante and I, unfortunately, have had some experience with intolerance. We shot the film before Karamarko came to power. So the drama on the big screen matched the facts on the small screen. We also wanted to say: "Let's try, maybe we can talk, maybe we don't have to hate each other".
On the other hand, we live in countries where political parties thrive on hatred as the shortest way to reach power. Perhaps it is not really hatred, but intolerance. So it would not have been fair for us not to say that it could happen again tomorrow, that someone could open the graves of our emotions and play the game of the poisoning of the dogs. It is like dropping something dark into a glass – that drop slowly and steadily continues to spread.
In your film, you show that behind every cliché there is a person. Do you hope that it can show humanity in all its forms and despite the labels?
I am one of those who do not believe that films can change lives. Films do not cause revolutions, change society, or improve people. I think they can do something on the emotional level. So films must have an emotion that carries them and that is the essence of communication with the audience.
The best thing that this film can achieve is that someone will reject clichés – stop for a moment and try to see, behind them, another frustrated human being...If we can do that a couple of times, change our initial reaction to the cliché, then the film has done a lot.
In the United States the première of the film coincided with the Trump win and the intolerance that has started to grow with his election, so many people told me that it is a film about their future. And I said: "Welcome to our past and present". Films are like acupuncture – if the needle catches the right spot, perhaps it could decrease the pain. It is no small thing.
blog comments powered by