Most of "Hey Babu Riba" (Laemmle's Royal) takes place in Belgrade, Yugoslavia, in 1953, but there's something about the setting that seems timeless, universal. In this movie's framing device, four emigres meet in 1983 to attend a funeral. As they start to reminisce, and as the movie shows us their recollection, it becomes suffused with a precisely caught mood of bittersweet reverie.
It's a very touching film: not perfect, not really deep and done with cinematic resources that at times seem modest, but writer-director Jovan Acin's material has reverberations, genuine feeling. Acin based the script on his own recollections, and his film is very influenced by Western film making, music and culture of the '50s. It's a film that seems imbued with longing for the past, for the moment in time when everything seemed full of luminous certainty and romantic potential, when youth and idealism seemed quenchless.
"Hey Babu Riba" evokes nostalgia with special poignancy. It's well acted and beautifully shot by Tomislav Pinter, cameraman for Dusan Makavejev and Orson Welles, and there's something irresistibly familiar about its framework. It recalls Ettore Scola's "We All Loved Each Other So Much" and the buddy-buddy quartets in innumerable movies from "American Graffiti" to "Stand By Me." Here the characters--Pop, Glen, Sacha and Kicha--are even called the Foursome.
Set near the time of Stalin's death and Tito's consolidation of power, "Hey Babu Riba" follows the reminiscences of the four, who've moved to Paris, Britian, the United States and Milan, and their one great antagonist, Joe, who stayed behind. All of them were united by their love of a girl, Miriana (Gala Videnovic), whom they nicknamed Esther, after Esther Williams, star of their favorite film, "Bathing Beauty." Their reunion at Miriana's funeral--30 years after their last parting with her--triggers the long flashback.
"Bathing Beauty" has a significance in Yugoslavia that Americans might not readily catch. "Bal Na Vodi," its Yugoslavian translation, is also the original title of "Hey Babu Riba" and it's the name of the restaurant yacht owned by Joe--on which the five are reminiscing. And though, in America, "Bathing Beauty" is a lesser-known MGM musical, it was one of Yugoslavia's most popular, frequently screened movies after the war.
For the Yugoslavs, "Bathing Beauty" was a tonic: lush color, music, girls in swimsuits, a dream of plenitude that seized their imaginations--and, especially, the imaginations of the resolutely middle-class Foursome. Calling Miriana "Esther" is their tribute to the Western culture they loved and which, in a highly imperfect way, they finally join.
In "A Catcher in the Rye," Holden Caulfield finally finds that he's nostalgic even for his persecutors. In a way, so is the Foursome. The period of turmoil, with its medical and food shortages, its ideological schisms--becomes haloed with a golden light. It was the period when they were young, together--and when Miriana, the girl they all adored, was still with them. Interestingly, the most sentimental of them all, the one who made his boat a shrine to Esther, is Joe, the ambitious Communist, then their major enemy and now vainly trying to stimulate a fellowship that never existed.
Appropriately, the young foursome tends to run together in your mind--while you can easily differentiate them in old age. Everyone is good, but the most memorable characters in the flashback are the surly, devious young Joe (Milan Strljic) and Videnovic's radiant Miriana; she clings to your memory as she clings to theirs. In the framing scenes, the other, older Joe (Dragomir Borjanic-Gidra) is memorable as well, his surliness spent, his bravura turned to bitterness.
In "Hey Babu Riba" (MPAA rated: R, for sex and language) there's a series of symmetrical echoes and linking devices: the boats and coxswains that recall their youthful sport; the long-cracked key of a stolen grand piano that Glen repairs at the beginning; the insistent refrain from "Bathing Beauty"; the leather straps which we realize are disguising Joe's wrist tattoos of Stalin and Lenin.
But though Acin is often obvious, particularly when he makes a political point, his handling overall is so gentle that the intended mood of reverie finally floods over us--an ironic peaceful coexistence in memory if not in life.