The hilarious pitch-black Yugoslav satire "The Marathon Family" (at the Fox International) opens with five minutes of newsreel footage of the 1934 assassination of Yugoslavia's King Alexander during a parade in Marseilles and his subsequent funeral procession.
Slobodan Sijan and his writer Dusan Kovacevic, whose first feature was the similarly themed but not as effective "Who's Singin' Over There?," are telling us right off that an era is ending. At the same time, the ceremonial pomp and circumstance in the newsreels is so elaborate and stupendous as to be amusingly self-deflating, thus providing a prologue for the demolishing humor to come. By its end, "The Marathon Family" has skewered not only timeless human greed and folly but also foreshadowed the unparalleled barbarity so shortly to sweep over Europe with World War II. Yet Sijan and Kovacevic's ability to find something funny in the absurdity of evil never falters.
It's six months after King Alexander's death and we've moved on to a shabby small town in Serbia. Perched in a tree is a skinny, sharp-featured blond fellow (Bogdan Diklic), who's peering through a telescope aimed at the bedroom window of a dying man. At the moment of expiration he climbs down and rushes over to measure the corpse, surely still warm, for a coffin.
Diklic, you see, is the young, yet-to-be married scion of a five-generation family of morticians, all widowers and all of whom live together over their quaint-looking establishment. (At this moment, it's actually still six generations, but Diklic's 120-year-old great-great-great-grandfather is on his deathbed.)
"The Marathon Family" careens and jogs with deceptive amiability through a rambling plot that turns upon the family's financial indebtedness to the local thug, the luxuriantly mustachioed Billy Python (Zoran Radmilovic), who for 20 years has been digging up freshly buried coffins so the family can recycle them.
Diklic, who would like to break away from the family profession, has his heart set on Billy's squealing, spinsterish daughter (Jelisaveta Sablic), about to lose her job as piano accompanist at the local Bijou due to the belated arrival of talkies. Its dapper, enterprising manager (Bora Todorovic), however, has new employment in mind for Sablic--and Diklic--as stars of his homemade erotica; he shows them Hedy Lamarr in "Ecstasy" as inspiration. Sijan's way with droll slapstick distracts us from the ever-darkening implications of the outrageous shenanigans of Diklic and his family.
A seedy period atmosphere, a splendidly exuberant cast, a shadowy "Prizzi's Honor" kind of look and feel all contribute strongly to "The Marathon Family" (Times-rated: Mature for adult themes, some nudity). Best of all, Sijan and Kovacevic have brought this film off with a far lighter touch and considerably more imagination than they did with "Who's Singin' Over There?"
'THE MARATHON FAMILY'
An International Home Cinema release of a Centar Film production. Producer Melita Bihalji. Director Slobodan Sijan. Screenplay Dusan Kovacevic. Camera Bozidar Nikolic. Music Zoran Simjanovic. Production designer Milenko Jeremic. Costumes Mira Cohadzic. Film editor Lana Vukobratovic. With Danilo Stojkovic, Bogdan Diklic, Pavle Vuisic, Mija Aleksic, Mica Tomic, Jelisaveta Sablic, Zoran Radmilovic, Bora Todorovic. In Serbo-Croatian, with English subtitles.
Running time: 1 hour, 35 minutes.