'Barbarians' ('Varvari'): Karlovy Vary Review

Barbarians Film Still - H 2014
Courtesy of Karlovy Vary Film Festival

Barbarians Film Still - H 2014

Unlike its protagonists, this film knows where it's going and what it's doing. 

Belgrade-born director Ivan Ikic's first feature is an impressively realistic, semi-improvised look at a couple of hotheaded youngsters adrift in 2008 Serbia

The intense frustrations and pent-up anger of a handful of directionless Serbian teens are vividly brought to life in Barbarians (Varvari), the mostly hand-held, vibrantly captured feature debut of director Ivan Ikic. Though the film is set in February 2008 (to allow the protagonists to end up at a demonstration against newly independent Kosovo that ended with the U.S. embassy in Belgrade in flames), Ikic succeeds more generally in painting a raw and depressing picture of the current “lost generation,” which grew up after the fall of Communism in a moral vacuum and without role models. A surefire conversation-starter locally, this Karlovy Vary world premiere should have no trouble lighting up screens at other festivals.

Luka (Zeljko Markovic) is a 17-old teenager who’s just out of juvie, plays around with guns, shoots the shit with his best bud, Flash (Nenad “Flash” Petrovic), and is part of a group of rowdy if loyal supporters of the soccer team of his birthplace, Mladenovac, a former industrial town under the smoke of the Serbian capital. Things start to go downhill for Luka when, at a game, the only black player on the team (Kagai Muriithi) is hit by a stone that came flying from the stands, and Luka and Flash are forced by the leaders of the group to drive the player around as a form of penance. This doesn’t sit well with Luka, who’s afraid of no one and has a serious temper that gets him into trouble when he hurts a soccer player who had camera-recorded sex with Stefana (Marija Rakic), a girl that Luka’s had his eye on (and thus feels he owns, never mind what she might actually think or want).

Ikic is also credited for the screenplay, though only the general situation of each scene was sketched out and then improvised by the actors, ensuring that dialogue and reactions feel real and in-the-moment. The film refuses to offer facile psychological explanations for the characters' behavior, instead simply observing them, though it’s clear that Luka, for example, comes from a background that’s far from easy. He lives with his mother (Jasna Djuricic) and older brother in an apartment provided by the state because his father died in the Kosovo conflict, though as the film unfolds it turns out things may be more complicated than that, which both intrigues and destabilizes Luka more than he’d probably care to admit.

In many ways, Barbarians plays like a male counterpart to director Maja Milos’ controversial Clip (production designer Zorana Petrov worked on both, though her work is appropriately more sober here). In the two films, Serbian teenagers seem to grow up entirely without a moral compass. Instead, they live vicariously through social networks, are especially hedonistic (and precocious) when it comes to sex — though the act itself is more like a kind of must-have prize than an actual opportunity for intimacy or even pleasure — and have little to no self-respect.

With their parents either killed or with their heads still in the war that scarred them and the nation in the 1990s, and a nebulous socio-political situation that combines post-Communist remnants with the worst excesses of capitalism, there’s also an absence of people to look up to. Consequently, the youths cling dangerously to their peers in amorphous groups that create a sense of belonging through being extremely dogmatic (examples include their undying and unconditional support for a soccer team or the hordes that descend on Belgrade for the “Kosovo-Is-Serbia” protest that Luka attends with his gang). Both groups also offer an outlet for all the repressed rage and anxiety of the young men in the form of violence, which more often than not seems fuelled not so much by a desire to win or establish primacy but rather to, through physical pain or direct confrontation, simply be reminded that one’s actually alive.  

Markovic, a non-professional actor like the rest of the Mladenovac youngsters, has a remarkable screen presence that’s intense but also capable of nuance, which is crucial in a role that, in lesser hands, could have simply turned Lukas into a brawny brat. As his mother, veteran actress Djuricic impresses in just a handful of scenes, while Petrovic, as Flash, is credible as the racist, xenophobic, homophobic and misogynist hothead who’s just as lost as his pal.

The raw cinematography of Milos Jacimovic (who also shot Tilva Ros, another film about the current lost generation) and Dragan Petrovic’s precise editing, which accumulates telling details in an seemingly offhand way, are the film’s most noteworthy below-the-line contributions.

Production companies: SENSE Production, OR, Restart, Refresh

Cast: Zeljko Markovic, Nenad “Flash” Petrovic, Jasna Djuricic, Marina Vodenicar, Mirko Vlahovic, Marija Rakic, Lidija Popovic, Aleksandar Pitulic, Aco Cirovic, Kagai Muriithi

Writer-Director: Ivan Ikic

Producer: Milan Stojanovic

Co-producers: Nina Redzepagic, Bojan Mastilovic, Snezana Maric

Director of photography: Milos Jacimovic

Production designer: Zorana Petrov

Costume designer: Biljana Grgur

Editor: Dragan Petrovic

Sales: WIDE

No rating, 87 minutes