Raft of the Medusa, 1980

One of the highlights from the Slovenian Cinema program is Karpo Godina’s insightful dark comedy, Raft of the Medusa, a film that captures the infectious energy, irreverence, and idealism of the assorted avant-garde isms that defined the art movements of the 1920s. Told from the perspective of a pair of rural teachers, Kristina (Olga Kacijan) and Ljiljana (Vladislava Milosavljevic) struggling to single-handedly run the school after the headmaster’s extended absence, their thirst for adventure is foretold in the film’s surreal opening sequence, as Ljiljana meets a nebulous character, later revealed to be her brother (Predrag Panic) at a hotel to take a series of erotic art photographs that will be used for the dual purpose of marketing business equipment and setting up discreet rendezvous with interested suitors. Visited by her brother’s newfound friends from Belgrade, a band of traveling artists led by Micić (Boris Komnenic) who has set out to promote zenithism – his own homegrown movement that combines dadaist performance with Marxist agitation – Ljiljana is soon seduced by the call of Art and, together with her friend and colleague Kristina, decide to abandon the school and join Micić’s call to cultural revolution. Delivering equal doses of vaudeville, performance art, burlesque, and propaganda to a bemused, but often captivated audience, the itinerant performers make their way through the newly formed, united “Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes”, until rivalries, romantic entanglements, and political instability gradually take their toll. Evocatively titled after the grisly account of the shipwrecked French frigate Medusa whose survivors, floating on a raft, resorted to cannibalism and throwing the weak and the injured overboard as a means of conserving provisions, the film is also a potent deconstruction on the failure of the movement, where the ideal of art as a medium for provocation and social change is lost in the infighting, myopia, and self-absorption of its anointed messiahs. Concluding with the newsreel-like coda featuring blind schoolchildren – an aesthetic divergence from the formalism of the rest of the film – Godina not only reinforces his roots in documentary filmmaking, but also alludes to the discarded souls of the Medusa, recovered in the aftermath of tragedy and disillusionment, the dislocation of an inextinguishable fire.

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