Wednesday, October 13, 2010



Zrinka Cvitesic
At the Breakthrough Performers' Panel HIFF 2010
Photo by Eric Roffman

ON THE PATH is a terrific film, exceptionally richly directed by Jasmila Zbanic, and exceptionally richly acted by Zrinka Cvitesic.

This is a film which is all "sub-text." Nominally, and if you read the synopsis, the film seems to be about a man who becomes a devout Wahhabi Moslem. That is what is happening on the surface. But that text is just the enrichment of the real story.

The actress, Zrinka, speaking for herself and the director, says that in reality the film is about love -- about a couple that love each other with a bond that threatens to come apart when the man develops an obsession.

The story takes place in Bosnia, and is about a couple which is moderately, almost secularly Muslim. Then the man becomes more and more involved in very ritualistic, fundamentalist, orthodox (I'm not sure what the correct word is) Muslim practices.

But the man, they say, could have become a workaholic computer hacker, or developed any other obsession, and the essence of the story would have been the same.

The film gives life to the culture and geography of Bosnia. This immersion in the culture of Bosnia helps give the film its special richness. The richness is enhanced by the commitment of the actress and the actors to the specific life of this specific Bosnian couple. (In fact, although there is not one hint of it in the film, the principal characters are essentially created from the stories of very real people.)

But contrary to what one might expect -- what I certainly expected after reading the synopsis in the HIFF program -- there is no suggestion that the Muslim orthodoxy described in the film is in any way related to terrorism or international terrorism. This is in no way a story about politics -- though it is political. It is a love story. Still, it is political, because it seems to me the story is a defense of moderation, accommodation, compromise, and modern values in the service of love.

The description of the ways the man behaves in his Muslim orthodoxy, in reality, is not significantly different from a description that could be written about a non-religious man in love in New York who goes to Israel, where the man becomes involved in Ultra-Orthodox Zionist Judaism, with new rules for praying, touching women, and strict dietary rules; where everyone who used to be around him may fear (without any evidence) that these religious beliefs have political overtones that could have a violent outlet.

The film, in fact, is a celebration of moderation. Unlike films like Carlos and Che, where the film has a section in the beginning where the protagonist and title character is shown as idealistic, and committed to social improvement, as well as hunky, handsome and virile -- so that a section of the film could be taken out of context and used as a recruitment vehicle for terrorists -- ON THE PATH has no period where terrorism is glorified. It does not demean or mock the man's choice of religion either, though it does show the strains his choice puts on his relationships.

As a celebration of moderation, and a story of love, and a setting in a faraway, exotic land not well known to most Americans, and a story that explores religion and personal life, this film could (and I think should) have a commercial life in a circuit that includes colleges, and moderate Christian, Jewish, and Muslim religious groups and organizations. Mel Gibson built a distribution system for a violent religious film. It is time to build (or re-build: these used to exist!) a distribution system for wholesome, dramatic films (foreign and domestic) that do not rely on violence or sophomoric humor.

(To expand on that thought for a moment, it may be that heavy promotion of free, full-screen, high-resolution streaming video of brilliant, but otherwise rarely seen, feature films could be used to build a market for films that currently have little or no American distribution.)

Bosnia, where the film is set, escaped about fifteen years ago from a war with neighboring Serbia in which atrocities were committed and houses and property were appropriated. That is the background for this story.

Throughout history, Bosnia, Croatia, and Serbia (and other countries which were once part of Yugoslavia) have been the site of many, many wars of conquest and liberation and shifting alliances and unions.

Muslims are the largest religious group in Bosnia; Catholics the largest in Croatia; Serbia is largely Protestant.

The director, Jasmila Zbanic, is a moderate Bosnian Muslim woman. She is a very independent woman. She is interested in the lives of women, their love lives, their personal lives, their happiness. One usually thinks of a "feminist" as someone who is especially interested in women as professionals, so perhaps Jasmila might be called (at least on the evidence of this movie) a "womanist," rather than a feminist.

Her method of auditioning her actors was quite unique. She had the actors all become clowns for a week, and gave them almost impossible tasks to do. I think this helped her create a cast of fearless actors, who retained strong bonds with each other.

Her direction created a film of absorbing richness, both in the behavior of the actors, and the backdrop on which the love story was played. She provides a large palette of emotion and experience; and cinematography that can be beautiful or gritty as the scene requires.

On the strength of this film, I would expect her to become a major international directing talent -- provided that Bosnian films can reach the world market.

Zrinka Cvitesic (pronounced -- I'm guessing here -- Svi TEZ itch) has exceptional range, both physically and emotionally. In this film it seems as if at least three different actresses are playing her role as she evolves through the story of the film. She is not afraid of any kind of behavior. On her website, her portfolio (see the YouTube slideshow below) shows a whole spectrum of poses from "nice young lady" to exotic model. She can be quite plain or fabulously beautiful; young and innocent to sophisticated and worldly; under control and totally free.

Zrinka was selected as a Shooting Star by the EFP, European Film Promotions, and came to HIFF as one of the Breakthrough Performers. On the Breakthrough Performers Panel, and in person, she was charming, lovely, friendly, articulate -- in English, and very interesting in providing background to the film and her own creative development.

Breakthrough Performers Zrinka Cvitesic and Pihla Viitala
Talking with Harvey Weinstein
At the Chairman's Party HIFF 2010
Photo by Eric Roffman

The Breakthrough Performers Program and the Shooting Star Program were both designed to give exceptionally promising young actors the opportunity to develop creatively and professionally by networking and being mentored by established figures in the film world; and simultaneously they promote their films throughout the world.

Although not part of this film, it should also be noted that Zrinka is a singer and a terrific dancer: she won the Croatian version of Dancing With The Stars. (Two YouTube videos are below showing her singing --in English! -- and dancing. She is quite amazing in the range of her talents!)

For ON THE PATH, Zrinka, who is Croatian, learned the Bosnian dialect and manner. In fact, in preparing the role, she needed to represent a specific Bosnian woman who had been the subject of a famous photograph (showing her suffering from anti-Bosnian violence, from which she did survive). Although that identity never shows up in the film, I suspect that the specific identification helped to create the tangible feeling of reality that permeates the film.

Zrinka speaks excellent English. In fact she lived for a bit in the US. With a look that can be natural or exotic; beauty that could make her an international supermodel, prodigious acting talent, and the facility to dance her way to the top, I'm looking forward to Zrinka's next great films, and fantastic career.

Cvitesic may be hard to figure out how to pronounce. Supermodels often go by a single name. I'll call her Zrinka!













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