Five participants successfully finished five-week long Film Criticism workshop mentored by Jonathan Rosenbaum: Daria Blažević, Matija Krstičević, Nikola Radić, Višnja Vukašinović and Vida Zelić. The films they wrote about were Last Year at Marienbad (1961) directed by Alain Resnais, Rio Bravo (1959) directed by Howard Hawks, Enchanted Desna (1964) directed by Yuliya Solntseva, and Rear Window (1954) by Alfred Hitchcock.
Jonathan wrote his impressions about the workshop on his website:
Even though not all of the seven students, located in different parts of Serbia and Croatia, made it to the end of the workshop – which was conducted via emails shared by everyone before our 105-minute “in-person” gathering — I told the five who made it through that they were the brightest reviewers I’ve ever been lucky enough to teach, even though the English they wrote in was their second language.
22nd of March 2021
Yuliya Solntseva: The Enchanted Desna
The Enchanted Desna feels like a poem in film form, which is especially interesting considering that it’s also a political film. And as much as the question of politics is present throughout the film, there’s something jarring about the way it is handled near the end: there are lines that speak in favor of communism and the progress it will bring – but somehow, they seem stereotypical and formulaic, as if copy-pasted from a government-approved document.
Therefore, they end up sounding like disclaimers: we are left to wonder whether the narrator really thinks that the destruction of his village, the very place shown so lovingly throughout the movie, heralds a great future. The narrator tells us that “in a short period of time, precisely these people [i.e. communists] will cut off the rivers and reverse them, they’ll create oceans of a thousand million cubic meters of vivid water. They’ll lay channels through the thirsty steppes of our motherland. They’ll transform the Earth and take over the universe.” And yet, the image shows a construction site, sterile and emptied of all life. Immediately after that, the narrator goes back to the memory of his childhood, and the images revert to idyllic scenes of sun, spring, color, and a little boy having fun in the middle of it. Now that this seemingly wonderful world has been torn down, are we to expect that the narrator honestly believes things are moving forward?
In a way, the film itself seems to be an attempt to decide on the answer, contrasting an intensely personal story with politics and the course of history: the beginning plunges the viewer straight into a scene of war, potentially marking it as a point of crisis after which there is no going back. After all, the life the narrator led as a child was defined by religious conventions, the authority of priests (such that almost echoes Potemkin), children dying from illnesses, villagers fighting and killing one another over property, animals forced to forfeit their freedom and work for man. The war, then, marks the time for these things to end.
In a way, Desna could also be understood as the narrator’s attempt to come to terms with the ending of the life he knew: the film uses a loose structure, creating a mosaic and presenting these events in fragments. These are accompanied by a narration that has a confessional tone, sometimes asking questions that never get answered, like an indication of the narrator’s uncertainty. These traits are also noticeable when we see him onscreen, where he stays pensive, silent, or second-guesses himself – “I am beginning to feel my pen hesitate. The editors within me are being roused”. There is none of the self-assured attitude of a dedicated communist.
The narrator is the element that ties everything we see together, and the linking of sequences seems to represent his line of thinking – that is, his attempt to make sense of all that is changing. Finally, The Enchanted Desna can be compared to an essay film, because it doesn’t just show us the events themselves, but also the process of thinking through them.
So, what about the conclusion? I would say that the viewer has the option to decide – there is enough in the film that indicates that the narrator is honest, and just as much that seems to indicate that he is being ironic. After all, he seems to know the frustration of censorship: “But why can’t I write that, as a boy, I wanted the lions to roam around everywhere (…) in real life? ‘That’s not plausible. It might be misunderstood. You could not have met a lion. (…) We’ll cross that out.’ I won’t have that! I feel something will come out of it. What? I don’t know…Maybe happiness.”
Such ambiguity in the overall message lends complexity to the film, and is particularly important in the context of a film industry so intensely monitored and controlled as the USSR’s was.
Rad Kino kluba Split podržavaju Hrvatski audiovizualni centar, Društvo hrvatskih filmskih redatelja, Grad Split i Zaklada Kultura nova. Voditeljica programa je Sunčica Fradelić.