Zvenenje v glavi : Slovenia (Slov/Croatia) 2002 : Andrej Kosak : 90-92mins

Slovenia’s official entry for the 2002 Foreign-Language Oscar may prove rather too brutal for the gentle souls of the Academy. A violent prison movie with ambitious political-allegory overtones and brief interludes of relatively calm romance, it showcases a commanding turn from Jernej Sugman as Keber, ex-soldier, Vietnam veteran, seaman and criminal sentenced to jail for his part in a botched post-office heist. Chafing against the petty brutalities of the prison guards, Keber’s patience snaps when the screws obstruct the inmates’ attempts to watch a World Championship basketball match between the USA and Yugoslavia (this is 1970).

The resulting stand-off rapidly escalates to a full-scale riot which sees the prisoners take over the jail and establish their own ‘liberated territory’ while the forces of law and order mass beyond the perimeter fence. But Keber soon realises that the criminals have merely exchanged one form of tyranny for another: mild-mannered, aged intellectual Mrak (Radko Polic) seizes the opportunity to assume dictatorial powers as ‘President’. As events spiral into bloody chaos, Keber recalls episodes from his earlier romance with Leonca (Ksenja Misic) – all the while contending with the tinnitus-like condition that gives the movie its title.

“We cooked up something that would end up in the history books of Yugoslavia” remarks Keber And some knowledge of Yugoslav history is probably necessary for viewers to grasp the nuances of Kosak’s script, (co-written with Dejan Dukovski, based on Drago Jancar’s novel). But certain aspects are universal: the inmates’ descent from idealistic revolution (“self-government”) to despotic barbarity is pure Animal Farm or Wajda’s Danton – and the script’s many references to the Roman siege against the Jews at Masada put Keber’s struggles in a heroic, historic (but doom-laden) context of which he himself is all too well aware.

His ongoing voiceover soon reveals the articulate depths lying beneath his thuggish exterior – a sensitive aspect to his character that has been downtrodden by his turbulent, conflict-haunted life. This long-buried side emerges most poignantly in his scenes with Misic – and though they serve to humanise and round out Keber, Leonca herself never really comes into anything like so sharp a focus. It doesn’t help that the romantic episodes come in non-chronological order – instead we jump about between the various stages in the relationship. One minute everything is fine; the next Leonca has turned to God and things suddenly turn turbulent; the next she’s foolishly embarked on an affair with another man; the next she’s hurtling towards suicide.

Kosak is on much more comfortable ground with the prison sequences which make up the bulk of the very brisk 90-minute running time. The early riot scenes feature too much use of juddery stop-motion and pounding techno (in contrast to the over-sentimental piano music that rather clumsily accompanies the romantic stuff). But Kosak soon calms down and achieves an effective blend of tension and dark humour as the convincingly hard-assed Keber – imagine a bulkier Jean Reno – realises the mess he’s gotten himself into.

26th December, 2003
(seen on video, same day)

by Neil Young
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