'The Eighth Commissioner' ('Osmi povjerenik'): Film Review

Munich Film Festival
An earthy, often charming but predictable comedy.

A cynical politician learns his lesson when he’s forced to govern a backwards Mediterranean island in Croatia’s Oscar hopeful.

After Gabriele Salvatores’ Mediterraneo grabbed the best foreign language Oscar in 1992 in a surprise win, it’s the turn of another comedy about being stranded on an idyllic Mediterranean island to shoot for the stars. In over two leisurely hours, The Eighth Commissioner describes the travails of an up-and-coming politician who is being groomed to become deputy prime minister of his country. But an inconvenient sex and drugs scandal sends smoothie Sinisa Mesjak (Frano Maskovic) into professional exile on Croatia’s most remote island, where he has to adapt to the local way of life rather than the other way around.   

This fable about a politician who finds morality is based on a novel by Renato Baretic and is full of paradox, well drawn characters and a pinch of folk magic and mystery. It’s the first feature film directed by veteran screenwriter and TV documentarian Ivan Salaj, who shows a confident hand directing the nearly all-male cast. Told through Mesjak’s jaded eyes, it’s earthy and macho at heart, and its sporadic bathroom humor and porno gags are likely to amuse men more than women viewers. Still, the story is light and enjoyable and its setting is a sparkling, timeless paradise.

In a sophisticated, lightning-fast opening sequence where the editing shines, young Mesjak receives the prime minister’s official endorsement and his political future looks assured. He routinely beds the attractive party secretary; in the next shot, he finds himself in the ICU of a hospital. Though he can’t remember the hard partying with drugs and prostitutes that has made national headlines while he’s been in a coma, he insists it must be a frame-up.

His next stop is the beauteous island of Trecic, four hours from the nearest ferry boat route. He’s been sent to this hardship posting as the island’s official commissioner, after his seven predecessors failed to bring modern civil society — i.e., elections — to the place. It’s immediately obvious why: the entire population consists of three dozen gray-haired oldsters who speak an incomprehensible dialect and adamantly refuse to identify with the established political parties.

At this point the story seems ready to develop into a comical treatise on the value of democracy, along the lines of last year’s Indian Oscar submission Newton. Such is not the case here. Mesjak’s life on Trecic follows the less complicated and less intriguing route of discovering its lack of Internet and phone lines, butting heads with the locals who try to dodge his authority and submitting to kooky traditions like a graphic Passion play and crucifixion at Easter. Meanwhile, he comes to appreciate the honesty and basic human goodness of the islanders.

First among these is his young interpreter and factotum, Tonino (Borko Peric), an innocent lad in a Prince Valiant haircut who puts the commissioner up in this humble home. He also takes care of his wheelchair-ridden dad, a monster who is responsible for the seizures that have plagued him since he was a child. Tonino is Mesjak’s slightly embarrassed guide to the quirky people of Trecic, who include a helpful aborigine sorceress, a Bosnian porn director in hiding (the gross but funny Goran Navojec) and a sunny, pure-hearted girl he’s rescued from white slavery (Nadia Cvitanovic). Peric can be distressingly one-note in his dignified modesty, but he finely carries the story’s true emotional moments in several touching revelation scenes.

The film belongs to the suave Frano Maskovic, however, who plays the pol as a very cool customer indeed. Resigned to his exile but determined to end it quickly, he goes through all the predictable fish-out-of-water stages. Slowly he relinquishes his snide, superior attitude as miracles happen around him. These include not only supernatural events, but the ingenuity with which the islanders manage to get their hands on free electricity, satellite TV and a steady supply of goods and pensions smuggled in from Italy. It may not be a film that digs deep, but it covers a lot of curious ground.

While pacing is a problem, the cinematography by D.P. Slobodan Trninic lends a magical sparkle to the locations, which were filmed on the touristic islands of Brac, Hvar and Zlarin. Production design by Ivana Skrabalo has an unpretentious realism that befits the story.

Production companies: Alka-Film Zagreb, Maxima Film, Kadar Film, Olimp Produkcija, Embrio 
Cast: Frano Maskovic, Borko Peric, Nadia Cvitanovic, Goran Kavojec, Filip Sovagovic, Ivo Gregurevic
Director: Ivan Salaj
Screenwriter: Ivan Salaj, based on a novel by Renato Baretic
Producer: Jozo Patljak
Co-producers: Damir Teresak, Kazimir Bacic,Tomislav Bubalo, Dario Domitrovic, Mario Vukadin
Director of photography: Slobodan Trninic
Production designer: Ivana Skrabalo
Costume designer: Morana Starcevic
Editor: Marin Juranic
Music: Alen Sinkauz, Nenad Sinkauz
133 minutes