Review: The Head of a Big Fish
- Arsen Oremović’s feature debut is a clear-eyed and emotional glance at the hardships of Croatian everyday life, marked by war in the past and perpetual transitions in the present
It is not often, in the world of filmmaking and in the realm of Croatian cinema, that a film critic turns to filmmaking. Arsen Oremović started his work in cinema as a critic, before moving to filmmaking with shorts and short- and mid-length documentaries. The Head of a Big Fish, his feature debut, just premiered at the 69th Pula Film Festival, where it also won one Golden Arena, handed to Lana Barić for best actress in a lead role (see the news).
From its plot description, loosely adapted from Ognjen Sviličić’s novel of the same name, one could expect The Head of a Big Fish to be yet another example of the Croatian variety of so-called Eastern European “miserabilism”, where war trauma is mixed with the trauma of life in a (post-)transitional society. The opening scene, in which we follow the protagonist, could fortify that notion. Nicknamed Tractor (Neven Aljinović-Tot in a rare big screen role), he lives alone in a crumbling house somewhere in the countryside by the river, wears leftover army clothes, pops pills because he has trouble sleeping at night, and even toys with the idea of shooting himself with his AK-47 left from the war.
However, his brother Andrija (Nikša Butijer, glimpsed in Hana Jušić’s Quit Staring at My Plate [+see also:
interview: Hana Jušić
film profile]) has different ideas. In his daily grind as a cab driver in Zagreb, he waits for his lucky break, following a number of botched business opportunities and failed investments. He has just sold their parents’ house to a local big shot, and Tractor now has to move to the Zagreb apartment in which Andrija lives with his wife Vesna (Lana Barić, of Tereza37 [+see also:
film profile] and Eden [+see also:
film profile] fame). The chances for a man used to living alone to find peace in a busy city are slim, but Tractor has few options left and Vesna volunteers to offer him some help, or at least a sympathetic ear…
Essentially a three-hander chamber piece, The Head of a Big Fish relies on its actors to carry it, and Oremović’s work with them — based on a number of rehearsals prior to filming — is spot on, with the naturalism of the characters’ connections sincerely felt. Aljinović-Tot shows his potential for big roles in the everyman type, and so does Butijer. For her part, Barić also shows that a certain deglamorisation suits her well, as she is more than capable of channeling the empathy expected from her character.
The Head of a Big Fish may be the most realistic and most artful picture of the reality of Croatian society, where scars from the war are still fresh while new scars from the hardships of everyday life keep appearing. It is also a very carefully thought-of film, in terms of character-building, dramaturgy and directing, but unlike many films made by (former) critics and theoreticians, it does not feel cold and distant.
The careful attention to certain details in the background might be expected from a filmmaker who learned the craft by making documentaries (in its first third, The Head of a Big Fish plays out as a fine amalgam of observational and poetical documentary). But others, discreetly woven into the film’s dramatic fabric (such as Vesna’s ethnicity, hinted at only by some of the expressions she uses) still come as a surprise, especially when Oremović does not use them as plot points. In the end, The Head of a Big Fish could be described as a masterwork of toned-down, restrained, naturalist cinema.
The Head of a Big Fish is a Croatian production by the company Izazov 365.
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