Friday, December 23, 2011

Submitted by Serbia: Montevideo—Taste of a Dream

In 1930, Yugoslavia’s national football (a.k.a. soccer) team had quite a run during the very first FIFA World Cup. If you think Serbia still remembers with pride that celebrated team consisted entirely of Serbians, you would be correct. The story of how a team of underdogs played their way into the tournament, in spite of a Croatian boycott, is dramatized in Dragan Bjelogrlic’s historical sports drama Montevideo: Taste of a Dream (sometimes also subtitled as God Bless You, trailer here), which has been officially submitted by Serbia for Academy Award consideration as the best foreign language film of the year.

Serbia is a long way away from Uruguay. With the memories and repercussions of WWI still very fresh for the newly formed country of Yugoslavia, the team requires a serious patron to underwrite their journey, like the king. He will need some convincing. Unfortunately, the national team is a motley bunch, largely overlapping with Belgrade’s sort of-kind of professional club, conveniently owned by their chairman. There is hope though when they sign the poor but cocky Tirke Tirnanić, who can do just about anything with a soccer ball (from here on, we’re sticking with the American vernacular). Still, he has a good heart, always looking out for the film’s Oliver Twisty narrator, Stanoje, a street urchin who must wear a leg brace.

Naturally, Tirnanić has a rival on the team, the comparatively well-heeled Mosha Blagoje Marjanović. Initially, they clash over differences of style and then over two women: Rosa, the good girl barmaid and Valeria, the vampy artist. It is pretty clear who should be with whom, but somehow they get mismatched.

Montevideo might be an Oscar long shot, but a forward-thinking art-house distributor should snap it up fast. It is easily one of the most commercial films in contention. Soccer continues to grow in popularity with Americans and fans tend to be rather internationalist in their outlook (so subtitles should be no problem). As sports films go, Montevideo has plenty of on-field action to satisfy enthusiasts, as well as two beautiful women. Of course, it is also totally manipulative. It is a sports film, after all.

Despite his baby-face, Petar Strugar makes a convincingly dashing rogue as Marjanović. While Miloš Biković’s nice guy right-winger (that is his position) comes across as something of an earnest stiff, such is the nature of sports movie protagonists. On the other hand, Nina Janković is downright fascinating as the nuanced troublemaker, Valeria.

A lovely period production, Montevideo captures all of Belgrade’s old world charm. Nemanja Petrovic’s design team’s attention to detail shows in every frame, while cinematographer Goran Volarevic gives it all a lush, nostalgic look. Still, given recent history in the Balkans, the occasional flash of nationalism remains a little scary, as when the crowd spontaneously bursts into the Serbian anthem after a pivotal game.

While a tad long at one hundred forty minutes, it is quite entertaining in a pleasingly old-fashioned way, with an appropriately hot and swinging-ish soundtrack. Considerably better than last year’s best foreign language Academy Award winner, Montevideo ought to have a further distribution life regardless of what Oscar does.