Complicated 20th Century history and different set of criteria make lead to many different answers to relatively simple question “which is the first feature film in history of Yugoslav cinema”. The issue is much clearer in case of Croatian cinema, but Lisinski, 1944 biopic directed by Oktavijan Miletić, has spent many decades in total obscurity due to those very same complicated historical circumstances.
The film was made during Second World War, when the territories of former Yugoslavia were occupied by Nazi Germany and other Axis Powers. That included Croatia where Nazis installed puppet regime of Independent State of Croatia, led by fascist Ustasha movement under Ante Pavelić. The regime has spent plenty of its resources for propaganda, which allowed for quick development of nascent film industry and studio called Hrvatski slikopis. Lisinski was its first live action feature film and the only one finished before the end of war and end of regime, which had been replaced by victorious Yugoslav Partisans.
The plot begins on May 22nd 1943 in Croatian capital of Zagreb when Croatian State Theatre stages gala concert of the works of Vatroslav Lisinski, Croatian 19th Century composer known as the author of first Croatian opera. Boris Papandopulo, the conductor (who also wrote the soundtrack for the film) addresses the audience, reminding of importance of Lisinski for development of Croatian culture and how that figure was misunderstood and unappreciated during his lifetime. The plot switches to 1841 when Croatia is under Habsburg rule. Lisinski (played by Branko Špoljar) works as lowly government clerk barely finding time to engage in writing music, which is his real passion. His friend Ognjen Štriga (played by Veljko Maričić), enthusiastic supporter of Illyrian movement, encourages him to write music using lyrics of Croatian patriotic poems. Those songs become popular, not only among patriotic youth, but also among parts of the aristocracy that include Countess Sidonija Erdödy Rubido (played by Srebrenka Jurinac), an opera singer. Lisinski takes even more ambitious task of composing Love and Malice, which will become first Croatian opera. Lisinski, encouraged by the love of his Hedviga Ban (played by Lidija Dominković), continues to write his next opera Porin. However, the envy of the politically connected but untalented peers, together with his failing health and increasing finacial troubles, will conspire to end Lisinski’s career, making him spend the last years of his life as a broken man.
Director Oktavijan Miletić, one of the pioneers of Croatian and Yugoslav cinema, was the most experienced film maker at the time, with number of quality short films made before the war. His direction of Lisinski is very confident, making very good use of resources at his disposal and turning his film stylistically and technically indistinguishable for high budget productions of other European cinema industries at the time. Scriptwriter Milan Katić, on the other hand, while celebrating Croatian patriotism, stays away from WW2 era politics and deals with figure that lived hundred years earlier; some “problematic” details from Lisinski’s life were nevertheless removed in order to conform with the ideological parameters of Ustasha regime, like Lisinski’s real name Ignac Fuchs, which points to his Jewish background, as well as Lisinski’s brief participation in Revolutions of 1848 and attendance of Prague Slavic Congress. The most disappointment aspect of Lisinski is casting. Branko Špoljar has film star looks and is made to resemble Lisinski from historical paintings, but he plays the character and incredibly passive and almost pathetic, unlike Veljko Maričić who steals the show as his passionate and enthusiastic friend. Lidija Dominković with her theatrical style of acting is very bad, while Srebrenka Jurinac (who would continue career as Sena Jurinec in post-WW2 Austria) aquits herself with energetic musical performances. The main issue of Lisinski is lack of events or drama in protagonist’s life and Miletić adds some long shots of Lisinski walking through streets, forests or hills only to pad running time. On the other hand, there is great deal of palpable enthusiasm of the crew and cast when reconstructing some parts of the past, like in the ball scene.
Despite those limitations, Lisinski is a good film that gives interesting insight into Croatian history. Thanks to Milan Katić being member of antifascist resistance, its cast and crew not only survived the collapse of Independent State of Croatia, but continued with their respective careers in Communist Yugoslavia, sometimes with great success. But their work in this pioneering piece of Croatian cinema was “memory holed” for ideological reasons, becoming available to public only in 1990, after the end of Communist regime.
RATING: 6/10 (++)
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