It's fortunate that "Happy New Year 1949," which screens in the second weekend of the UCLA Film Archives' "Yugoslav Film Today," is a known quantity, having been a highlight of the AFI Film Fest, because all four films that launch the series are disappointing and heavy-going. The message seems clear enough: Just because there's been a flowering of the Yugoslavian cinema in the past several years, yielding, for example, Emir Kustirica's Oscar-nominated "When Father Was Away on Business," doesn't mean that all Yugoslavian movies are easily exportable. This first weekend is best left to Yugoslavian emigre audiences rather than to film lovers.
Opening the series Saturday at 7:30 p.m. in UCLA Melnitz are Rajko Grlic's "In the Jaws of Life" (1984) and Veljko Bulajic's "High Tension" (1981).
The first is a contemporary comedy that intercuts the lives of a timid young heroine of a TV serial (whose would-be suitors are played by top stars in cameo turns) and her very liberated creator. There's plenty of potential here for feminist humor, but the film is so talky and drawn out that it lapses into tediousness.
At least "High Tension" is so awful that it's actually funny. It is set in the tumultuous, perilous late '40s, when Yugoslavia was breaking away from the Soviet Union, and it centers on the construction of a generator in Zagreb, a potent symbol of independence. The irony of this ponderous film is that for all its anti-Stalinist fervor, "High Tension" is the very model--indeed, it verges on parody--of the Stalinist era of social realism in which none of the characters are individuals but purely mouthpieces of political cant.
Easily the best of the four films is Dragan Kresoja's "The End of the War" (1984), which screens Sunday at 7:30 p.m. A somber drama of revenge set at the end of the war, it tells of a one-armed man's systematic execution of the fascists who murdered his wife. Accompanied by his resilient and enterprising young son, the man wanders about a country in turmoil and uncertainty, pursuing his implacable mission apparently unconcerned about its impact upon a child. "The End of the War" has been compared to "The Bride Wore Black," but this film's bleak political and historical context does not permit the light, witty touch that characterized the Truffaut film. Still, you could wish that Kresoja had tried for some irony.
Playing with it is Bozidar Nikolic and Dusan Kovacevic's "Balkan Spy," which starts out as a dark comedy but ends up a punishment to the audience. When an elegant middle-aged man returns to Yugoslavia after a 20-year absence, his burly, blue-collar landlord receives from the police what is most likely a routine inquiry about his new tenant. Immediately, the landlord starts fantasizing that his roomer is a spy ("for imperialist forces"), which in turn triggers his bitter memories of his long-ago imprisonment as a Stalinist. Unfortunately, the film runs as much out of control as the landlord does, with the result that "Balkan Spy" becomes overbearingly oppressive for all its fine performances.
Information: (213) 825-2581.
Claude Berri's triumphant films from Marcel Pagnol's "Water of the Hills" novels--"Jean de Florette" and "Manon of the Spring"--has prompted a Pagnol retrospective at the Nuart on Sundays through Jan. 24. The series commences this Sunday with "Angele," (1933), a delightful rarity that Pagnol adapted from Jean Giono's novel "Un de Baumugnes." "Angele" resembles Pagnol's classic "Fanny": Again the heroine becomes pregnant out of wedlock, again she is played by the demure Oriane Demazis. In both, Pagnol reveals himself to be an artist of enormous compassion with great respect for a person's pride--even when that pride threatens to become self-destructive, as in the instance of Angele's father (Henri Pouron).
"Angele" is leisurely, but no matter, for it is a celebration of patience and persistence and the belief in the ultimate triumph of loving forgiveness. Playing with it is the somewhat similar "Well-Diggers' Daughter" (1941).
Information: (213) 478-6379, 479-5269.