Saturday, November 11, 2006

FILM: Anno Domini 1573

"Impressions," TV Times, 3-9 December 1978


Tight schedules forced us to miss the European film festival. But we made it to the opening night of the Yugoslavian film festival. On show was Anno Domini 1573, a haunting and corrosive indictment of feudalism, a tragic but deeply human view of revolution, and a compassionate and hopeful foretelling of the liberation of the human spirit.

One leaves the theater strangely transported, emotionally silenced. Each year brings an autumn and a spring. Wars start and end. Man continues to fight against injustice and exploitation. Man lives. It is a haunting, but reassuring, film.

Anno Domini 1573 is historical--a rendering on film of the uprising of the peasants of Croatia against their landlords in 1573 as seen through the eyes of the young boy Petrek, who was born into an impoverished family living under the whip of the landlord Tahy. The film follows Petrek as he wanders through the rural landscape teeming with sadism (the boy's introduction to the traumatic evil of serfdom is the death of his father, who was made the human prey of hunting dogs), rape (his sister, like other virgins in the village, is brought to the landlord's castle), murder (he walks through bare fields sprinkled with gallows from which hang human corpses), inequality (the peasants fight with crudely-fashioned scythes, the nobles and their soldiers with swords and guns), irony (nobles and serfs pray the same prayers and invoke the same saints).

The young boy goes through his early days of apprenticeship to an independent knight and experiences cowardice in the face of defeat. Later, as his knight perishes in a battle with armored soldiers, he finds his model and mentor in the person of the chosen leader of the uprising--the charismatic Matija Gubec, under whose orders the serfs of the land will fight unto final defeat and whose name will become synonymous far and wide with heroism and revolution.

Gubec is caught in the end with the remains of his ragtag army, placed on a throne amid much ceremony, laughed at and pelted with eggs and insults, crowned with red-hot iron shaped in the form of a cow muzzle. He dies. But in his final message to the boy Petrek, he signals the philosophy of the true revolutionary leader: "Alone, by yourself, looking neither to right nor left, but always ahead--straight ahead!"

And Petrek, in the final autumn of the hapless year 1573, his left eye lost in the war now covered with a patch, walks through fields littered with bodies hanging from the gallows, singing the only song he knows, the song of the insurrection, walking straight ahead, to continue life and fight.

The film, written and directed by Vatroslav Mimica, a Yugoslav director noted for his intensely political and personal films, is simply made, a pure narrative that counts solely on its plot for dramatic impact. The acting is subdued but effective, hardly agitated yet agitating. Even the actor who portrays Gubec, the charismatic leader, is cool, self-contained, disciplined. And the young boy Petrek turns in a performance that is obviously deliberate and controlled.

As it follows its story smoothly, the film progresses, moved by its own internal rhythm. One sits through it, hardly cognizant of time, of the length of scenes and sequences, utterly taken up by the interplay of action, story, characters.

One cringes at the blood and gore. But in war, especially medieval war, both are inescapable. Bodies are severed, faces are slashed, heads and limbs roll onto barren ground, blood fertilizes the dry soil. The violence is there, but it is neither a cinematic tool nor an external force. And the camera does not linger on the blood and the violence with malevolent pleasure, but shows it as a matter of fact and history, part of the action and the revolution.

At film's end, as we walk out of the theater into the cold night already redolent with the approaching chill of Christmas, we feel with unmistakable clarity the inevitability of it all--of the revolution, of death, of life. Anno Domini 1573 was made in Yugoslavia. But Asia, too, has known similar anguish. As an Iranian rebel said, "Under such circumstances, the situation becomes so oppressive that religious and underground radicalism becomes the only outlet."

We understand it, because of Anno Domini 1573, and believe it.

-- NBT

No title in original published column

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