Lordan Zafranović’s retrospective at the occasion of 45th anniversary of his debut with the film Nedjelja (1961)

Controversies by Lordan

Modern classic or political pornographer

Throughout the decades Zafranović’s obsessions remained the same: sexuality as a twisted threat, voyeurism, self-destruction, latent sadism, dark evil hidden behind Mediterranean blinds and central European marzipan facades, behind ideology, romance and Eros

In the whole history of Croatian film, it is hard to find an author who has caused such strong and controversial emotions such as Lordan Zafranović. For some, such as British film theoretician Dina Iordanova, Zafranović is one of the great masters of modernism. For others, he is a poser who bombastically exploits sex and violence. To some critics (like Ranko Munitić), Zafranović is a Mediterranean classic whose films can be compared with those by Angelopoulos, Bertolucci or Lillana Cavani. To others, Zafranović is a pornographer and the only question is whether his pornography is erotic, political or both. Some remember Zafranović as the Communist party’s favorite author and an intense promoter of the regime. Others remember his dissident years when the young state of Croatia got its revenge by denying Zafranović the right of both domestic and international audiences. On the other hand, Zafranović has traveled the path of a man who was once in the good graces of the ruling powers but later deprived of the right to work; his works have been censored and shut away in bunkers. As an author he has been looked upon at various times as one of the great masters of Yugoslav film and also as a has-been.

In short, Zafranović is a man about whom everybody has an opinion; those opinions are often diametrically opposed and always very intense. The problem is that as time goes by, these opinions are less and less based on the actual viewing of his films. This is due to the fact that during the 1990s his films could not be seen. From time to time his films are shown on local television stations, two of his films were published by a small distributor from Split and the only program of his films to have been organized in Zagreb and Split in recent years (2001) drew a small crowd of people. It seems as though Zafranović is a mythical creature - everybody knows everything about his films and they hold strong opinions about them, but those viewpoints are not based on contemporary screenings of his films.

This program of Zafranović’s films in Tuškanac is a great opportunity to take a good detailed look at the controversial works by this filmmaker from the island of Šolta. Through fifteen programs that are grouped by themes (not chronologically) the audience will have the chance to see all Zafranović’s important works, from his early days in the 1960s in the vibrant atmosphere of the Cinema Cluba Split, all the way to fragments from his unfinished documentary about Tito.

One of the films that Zafranović made in the Cinema Cluba Split and that will be shown within this program is Poslije podne (puška) or Pjaca. I believe, and many agree, that this is the most valuable film from the early part of Zafranović’s career that culminates with his feature debut, Nedjelja, which he made after his return from Prague. It astonishes one that after spending six years in Prague, Zafranović returned from it as if he had never even been away. Nedjelja was only a continuation of his already established esthetics, based on meditative Mediterranean elements, an interest in sadism and evil, sexuality portrayed as vulgar and grim, as if a hellish vision were mixed with a Catholic upbringing.

Furthermore, this program consists of Zafranović’s most famous films, the “revolutionary trilogy” Okupacija u 26 slika, Pad Italije and Večernja zvona. Most people remember Zafranović by these films as they are representative examples of his version of the “socialist esthetics” that reconciles the modern and aggressive film expression with the calm orthodoxy of the ideological content.

Finally, the program finishes with Zafranović’s later Czech opus, with the film Lacrimosa/osveta je moja, an erotic thriller that is a logical continuation of the author’s earlier obsessions. Between the half-hour long Moj prvi ples and Lacrimosa lies a period of three decades - but throughout those three decades Zafranović’s obsessions remained the same: sexuality as a twisted threat, voyeurism, self-destruction, latent sadism, dark evil hidden behind Mediterranean blinds and central European marzipan facades, behind ideology, romance and Eros. (Jurica Pavičić)

Lordan Zafranović’s sunny inferno

There have often been many fierce controversies and polarized judgments surrounding Zafranović’s films, but no matter what the reaction to his work is, it is always quite energetic: nobody stays indifferent or uninvolved.

“Throughout his life”, says Zafranović, “an artist carries with him sort of an original stamp of the so-called primordial image, scenes that have been carved into his consciousness and sub-consciousness. Those are the imageses that the artist always returns to”… And further: “The intensity of the impact that the finished film has on the viewer is equal to the amount of inner energy that the author managed to put into his film and project into its scenes”... These are interesting points if for no other reason than for the fact that they manage to ideally decipher the basic characteristics of Zafranović’s opus, and in fact his basic artistic ideals.

These ideals include, first of all a close organic connectedness with his homeland’s Mediterranean landscape and with not only in the ambient and iconographic senses but also in the dramatic and symbolic senses: a space whose extreme natural elements (the burning sunny whiteness of the rocks in contrast with deep shadows, the infinity of the open sea in contrast with the boundedness of land) on the screen take on the meaning of elemental categories of being and moving forces, Being and Nothingness, Eros and Thanatos, heaven and hell, earth and space).
The combination of so many contrasting elements gives these films lavish outer garments as well as a confusing dream-like depth. These films are on one hand esthetically very “concrete” in their beauty and impressive ambience, but on the other hand poetically completely “abstract” primarily because of the mysterious spheres that they manage to reach with their pictures, movements and sounds. The Mediterranean landscape is the common denominator of Zafranović’s film opus as well as his perspective in life: no matter whether it appears on screen as an existential, symbolically extended or mythically universal model (where concrete set design, land and sea become marks of the infinity of the universe and the smallness of the scattered planets, while the coast stands for a “boundary”, a “transitional zone”, a sort of a fateful crossing zone that sets apart the earthly and concrete from the remote and the conceptual).
The power and meaning of Zafranović’s on-screen reality always rests partly upon the values of this basic model. However, it mainly draws from the author’s energetic vision, from what Zafranović calls the personal energy that he puts into his work.

From his early works as an amateur filmmaker (Dnevnik, 1964) and his first professional pieces (Poslije podne-puška, 1967), across flights into the sizzling exteriors (Ave Marija, 1970) and haunted interiors (Prvi valcer, 1970), to his “war trilogy“, the central segment of Zafranović’s opus (Okupacija u 26 slika, 1978, Pad Italije, 1981, Večernja zvona, 1986), one constant is a specific kind of visual and spiritual energy that is the author’s trademark and signature. The orchestration of such extremes (natural elements on a visual level and symbolic crystallizations on a spiritual level) always, thanks to its spontaneity, avoids the fine chiseling of the whole, which results in an exciting unevenness in Zafranović’s films followed by monumentally perfect moments of rare balance. This is the reason why there are often so many opposing, sometimes provocative and at other times even annoying reactions to his films. There have often been many fierce controversies and polarized judgments about Zafranović’s films, but no matter what the reaction to his work is, it is always quite energetic: nobody stays indifferent or uninvolved.
This brings us to the next link in Zafranović’s work and life. Like all other authentic, spiritually free filmmakers from the former Yugoslavia, Zafranović always broke the “rules of conduct” of film production in a Communist country. His works, just like those by Makavejev, Saša Petrović, Mimica, Žika Pavlović and others, caused many discussions, fights and scandals. And for a reason; his films really did not belong in the “official” program of Yugoslav cinema because they endangered its “ideological order” and “dogmatic peace”. Nevertheless, as soon as we widen the analytical scope and review these films and the entire opus as part of European cinema, everything fits into place.

Proof? Let us remember the specific chapter in Mediterranean film production (first of all Italian and Yugoslav cinema) in the 1960s and 1970s that focused on a somewhat surprising topic for that time: the topic and problem of fascism, a review of the local emergence of that evil that peaked in WW II. The chapter consists of Vatroslav Mimica (Kaja ubit ću te, 1967), Visconti ( La caduta degli dei, 1969), De Sica (Il giardiano dei Finzi Contini, 1971), Fellini (Amarcord, 1973), Liliana Cavani ( Portiere di notte, 1974), Pasolini (Salo o le centoventi giornate di Sodoma, 1975) and Bertolucci (Novecento, 1976). Zafranović’s “war trilogy” (1978-1986) is an organic and natural continuation. (Ranko Munitić)