THE TRAP [Klopka]
Director of Programming, Austin Film Society
I thought if ever I’d met a good man, you were the one. You of all. - Jelena
What would you do to raise the money to save the life of a loved one? Sell your property or beloved possessions, work harder and longer hours, forego dreams? Or commit an act which is morally reprehensible to you – not necessarily in a religious sense dictated by a deity, but counter to everything you believe about right and wrong, something which is entirely foreign to your nature?
Such is the dilemma faced by a young Serbian couple, Mladen and Marija, when they are told that their beloved son Nemanja needs a heart operation available only in Berlin, one which will cost 26,000 Euros + expenses. In other words, it is an amount of money completely out of their reach. He is a contract engineer and she is an English teacher. In the new Serbia they are middle class, but like their class throughout the world, they are just several paychecks away from financial difficulties.
Requests for loans from relatives and friends can’t begin to reach the necessary funding. They don’t have land or enough possessions to sell. Yet, in Belgrade they see that some people are thriving. The homes that are being built for the nouveau-riche are as ostentations as those of drug dealers in Miami or Mexico. One student tries to help Marija by paying for private tutoring, and during a tour of her father’s house the young girl off-handedly shows off an empty picture frame valued at 30,000 Euros and awaiting “just the right painting.” That empty frame would pay for Nemanja’s life-saving operation.
Such gaudy display and frivolous consumption are inevitable in societies undergoing rapid economic growth. Similar to that of the post-Communist socio-economic collapse of the Soviet Union, the Serbian portion of the former Yugoslavia has witnessed the rise of cowboy capitalism. Ruthless people (men for the most part) have grabbed opportunities to make money in the new economy, sometimes by buying former state-owned properties and plugging into market capitalism. Or perhaps by being the go-to-men to arrange deals with members of the well-financed European Common Market. In fact, the situation is so fluid that new “crimes” don’t necessarily have to be committed to make tons of money – just know the right people and have a nice nest egg saved up from formerly corrupt income. The ruthlessness can come during the competitive stage among former cronies. An educated middle class is also rising, but tenuously, and certain perks will never reach the hands of salaried folks.
So, like dreams of winning the lottery [with its impossible odds except for the one(s) who actually do win], Mladen and Marija somehow hope for the best while still trying to figure out how to raise the money. In an American film this dilemma might very well lead to a bank robbery, such as 1975’s DOG DAY AFTERNOON, which featured Al Pacino holding up a bank to get funding for his lover’s sex-change operation – ah, the innocent 70s. But in THE TRAP, the solution to securing the funds to save a child’s life provides a moral dilemma which would doubtlessly derail our certainty and force a rebalancing of moral values.
Taking the pre-existing novel by Nenad Teofilovic, Serbian filmmaker Srdjan Golubovic decided to make his second feature film explore such a moral dilemma, making a choice, which he felt somehow revealed many elements of his present-day country. In an interview in Toronto, he says, “… in Serbia, we live in the country, where we really do not have a choice, or else both choices are wrong. We live in a country where we are constantly choosing the lesser of the two evils. This was one aspect of the story that I liked. Another aspect that inspired me was that it is a story about redemption. And my feeling is that the whole society in Serbia has to go through redemption and catharsis, because during the wars we did many bad things. We are not only guilty, but we are more guilty than others, and many terrible things happened. The whole society and each person has to have his own catharsis, because without it we cannot move forward.”
That idea of confession and redemption is central to the film, but not until the finale do we understand whom Mladen is confessing to. In DOUBLE INDEMNITY (Billy Wilder, 1944) Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) is recording his confession of adultery and murder(s) into a Dictaphone, which will be heard by Barton Keyes, his father-figure, the only man whose judgment matters to Neff. But Mladen is no Walter Neff. Unlike the cocky, avaricious, lustful, and eventually homicidal American character who helped define the film noir male, Mladen is more typically a decent man. Reality has forced him to become otherwise. Much like some of Hitchcock’s male characters, Mladen is an ordinary man suddenly thrust into an extraordinary situation. Once a particularly defining action has been committed, such a man will never be the same, but he will anguish over his actions and, in this case, try to make things right – “if they can ever be made right again.” In this sense, Mladen is a character we can empathize with, no matter what country he lives in.
However, Golubovic realized that even while making a universal story he could also be reflecting on his homeland. “We still live in the shadow of the wars. During the 1990s we had three wars. In Belgrade we did not have an actual battle, but we had three months of bombing. It was not as bad as the war in Sarajevo or in Bosnia. In former Yugoslavia we lived well, but later all our processes were stopped, and now we are at the beginning, and Serbia's steps are very small. I want to see Serbia develop well and fast.”
By choosing a narrative with such an intriguing, disturbing set-up, Golubovic entered the realm of the contemporary thriller – not focusing on espionage of the Cold War or shadowy neo-nationalist organizations (contrary to the red herring in THE TRAP) – but a suspense film which thrusts us into uncomfortable situations which cause us to question our own values and limits. This is a psychological study well acted, written, edited, and filmed. Nebojsa Glogovac is perfect as Mladen, quiet, circumspect, and full of internal conflicts registering in his eyes and facial expressions. Unlike an adrenalin-fueled thriller which features chases and heavy firepower, THE TRAP takes its own time to trace out the conflicts and complications of an untenable situation. Duplicity, lies, misrepresentations, and ironies abound as we watch a man finally doing all that he can do, not only to save his son but to seek forgiveness for one horrendous act. A trap indeed.
Srdan Golubovic (born in Belgrade in 1972) has arrived as a well respected European director, beginning with music videos (a tried and true training ground all over the world) and shorts. His first feature was described as a Belgrade-mob movie, ABSOLUTE HUNDRED (2001), which I haven’t been able to find. He refers to its style as “dirty” – lots of cuts and rapid camera movement. Fortunately, he chose a more classic contemporary European style for THE TRAP, with careful compositions and a cold palette. He comes from a family of film people. His father, Predrag Golubovic, a director and a screenwriter, directed six feature films and some shorts, one of which received an Oscar nomination in 1972. Srdan says of his upbringing, “In my home we talked almost entirely about films. It was impossible for me not to develop an interest in films. I grew up surrounded by actors and people in film production. I was fascinated by that world, especially with our godfather, Bata Zivojinovic (Yugoslav movie star, known for his partisan heroes, notably the title role in VALTER DEFENDS SARAJEVO, 1972).“
Srdan received a Super-8 film camera when he was five years old, and began making films. At the age of seven, he tried to persuade his parents to enroll him in the Yugoslavian Film Academy rather than primary school. For some reason or other, they refused. As if to show them they made a mistake, he spent most of his school years fighting, causing trouble, and making bad grades – a kind of Bart Simpson [my comment, not Srdan’s]. His father felt that his son’s lack of patience, concentration, and determination would make him a poor director. Music videos allowed Srdan to try out his talents in a shorter, smaller format before he was ready to move on to feature narratives.
Some of the directors he has found greatest affinity with are the French Luc Besson and Mathieu Kassovitz (LA HAINE), as well as the impeccable Polish-French director Kieslowski, who has particularly influenced Golubovic in directing actors – “that discreet and realistic acting performance. I wanted them to act as in life. The hardest thing to achieve with actors is to make them seem really spontaneous. Unfortunately we [in Serbia] have a tradition of acting that is a little over the top. Actually, even when you see people on the street here talking, you can see that their gestures and acting are very strong. I wanted to avoid that. I needed that peace and insignificance that hide anger and helplessness.” He truly achieved that level of hidden emotions in THE TRAP.
THE TRAP received various accolades at the Berlin Film Festival as well as elsewhere. I’m not so sure that I’m happy it has been picked up for an American remake, but the comparison of motivations, moral dilemmas, and decisions might be interesting.