St. George Shoots the Dragon -- Film Review

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Serbia's entry in this year's Oscar competition is an ambitious World War I epic, "St. George Shoots the Dragon," that boasts striking visual effects, a skillful cast and a story that sometimes gets in the way of the impressive production. Although the film is sumptuously mounted, the uphill battle facing most foreign films will work against the picture in the U.S. marketplace.

The somewhat-convoluted script (written by Dusan Kovacevic) is set in a village near Serbia's border with Austria-Hungary. The film opens in 1912, during an earlier Serbian war with Turkey, when one of the main characters, a young soldier named Gavrilo (Milutin Milosevic), loses an arm. Embittered by his injury, Gavrilo returns home and breaks off relations with Katarina (Natasa Janjic), who enters into a loveless marriage with George (Lazar Ristovski), Gavrilo's sergeant during the earlier battle. Sexual tension continues to simmer among the three until the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand launches the First World War and alters their fates.

The first half of the movie jumps around, surveying a large number of characters, including the villagers, a band of smugglers, another woman involved with Gavrilo and a young orphan who is meant to guide us through the action. It's sometimes difficult to keep track of all the characters and their relationships, though the lead actors give compelling performances.

Milosevic cogently conveys the anger of a wounded veteran. Ristovski fumes with jealousy while also convincing us of the character's fundamental decency. Janjic is ravishing, which makes the two men's obsession quite understandable.

As the film morphs into a penetrating anti-war drama, it becomes considerably more potent. Director Srdjan Dragojevic, who made "Pretty Village, Pretty Flame" in 1996, demonstrates undeniable talent. The battle scenes capture the chaos and brutality of trench warfare, and the finale builds a mournful power.

Cinematography is rich, and the score adds to the movie's impact. Although it's easy to grow impatient during "St. George's" early scenes, the haunting conclusion stays with you.

Cast: Lazar Ristovski, Milutin Milosevic, Natasa Janjic, Bora Todorovic, Zoran Cvijanovic, Predrag Vasic
Director: Srdjan Dragojevic
Screenwriter: Dusan Kovacevic
Producers: Dusan Kovacevic, Lazar Ristovski, Srdan Dragojevic, Milko Josifov, Biljana Prvanovic
Director of photography: Dusan Joksimovic
Production designer: Miljen Kreka-Kljakovic
Music: Aleksandar Sasa Habic
Costume designer: Marina Medenica
Editor: Petar Markovic
Sales: Wild Bunch
No rating, 119 minutes