Karlovy Vary 2024 review: Celebration (Bruno Anković)

“As it is, there are flashes of inspired cinema but on the whole a film that feels like it is missing a piece.”

A rotting tree. “Three years ago that hole was this small.” In Bruno Anković’s debut feature Celebration, a film otherwise unclear about its message, metaphors like this give an idea of what the director is getting at with this decades-spanning tale of a Croatian young man before and after World War II. Showing the life of its protagonist at four different points in time, each matching one of the seasons, Celebration is meant as a history lesson to warn us about Europe’s growing far-right extremism and fascism. Unfortunately the film has to rely on its post-film explanation about Croatia’s war years to make clear what it is truly trying to say, and leaves the audience still in the dark about how exactly the lead character made the ideological leap that causes him to have to hide in the woods after the war has ended.

In the autumn of 1945 Mijo (Bernard Tomić, though in younger incarnations played by Lars Štern and Jan Doležal) keeps an eye on a farm in the Croatian mountains from the edge of the woods. He does not intend to be seen, but Drenka (Klara Fiolić), his childhood sweetheart, knows where to find him. She has been helping him to stay hidden for months, but tries to convince him to surrender and downplay an unspecified incident involving her brother. He promises her he will, in a few months when things have calmed down. As she leaves him and Mijo seeks shelter again in the woods, his thoughts shift back twelve years, to the summer of 1933.

There has been an incident in the village, where a dog has bitten one the local gendarmerie. As a result, all dogs are ordered to be killed. That includes the small mutt that Mijo found months earlier, abandoned. This news hits Mijo hard, but his father insists it has to be done, and furthermore insists that Mijo is the one to do it; he is to take the dog up the mountain and leave it tied to a tree as prey for the wolves that roam the mountain. As he brings the dog to his final resting place, he meets Drenka, and on the spur of the moment shows her his affection.

Winter 1926. Young Mijo’s family has fallen on hard times. Food is scarce, money even scarcer. Mijo follows his dad in secret as he heads to a neighbor to ask for help, only to be rebuffed. Father makes a rigorous decision, one encouraged by his own father: he will take Mijo’s ailing grandfather up the mountain and leave him there to die. It will be one less mouth to feed. Once again Mijo follows his dad, but he is spotted and taught a harsh life lesson.

In the spring of 1941 Mijo, whose father has died in the meantime, seeks out Drenka and her brother Rude. There is going to be a celebration in town, and they intend to join it. Rude is especially enthusiastic, as the celebration is about the forming of the Independent State of Croatia. “Finally we will be free,” he says. First they will have to go up the mountain though, to cross a pass and make their way into the next valley. On their way up it becomes clear that Mijo and Drenka have grown ever closer to each other, and the petulant and arrogant Rude feels like a third wheel. But once they reach the next valley and cross its blooming fields, a spring enters their steps as they join a column of people also heading to town to join in the festivities. Flags are waved, and fun and positivity after years of poverty lie ahead.

In 1941 Nazi Germany created the Independent State of Croatia, a puppet state run by the fascist party Ustasha, whose militias targeted Serbs, Jews, Roma, and political dissidents. After the war, when this puppet state was disbanded, many of its soldiers fled into the mountains. It is only with this knowledge, which comes late and in incomplete form through original footage from the time as well as the aforementioned post-film title cards, that one realizes just why Mijo fled into the mountains. At no point before that does Celebration indicate that he harbors any fascist tendencies, which is a serious lapse of the film. A harsh life of poverty and hopelessness is painted in the scenes before 1941, and even in that particular time frame Mijo seems quite content with his life and the love by his side. Celebration aims to be a warning that history is repeating itself, and history has indeed proven that these factors form a good breeding ground for fascism, but without seeing Mijo making that final step to a point where indeed he has to flee after the regime, his regime, comes tumbling down the film is intellectually rather empty.

Not empty in terms of filmmaking though, as Anković proves himself a capable and promising director who knows how to create atmosphere through image, and is well equipped to turn some of his story’s concepts into visual metaphors, however few they may be. As in Malick’s A Hidden Life, the mountains that surround Mijo’s small village are characters of their own, and it is no coincidence that in all three pre-fascism segments Mijo has to climb up, while in the post-war segment he desperately wants to come down. The choice of color palette, different in each of the segments, is used to communicate harshness, hope, despair. The ever-changing world juxtaposed with ideologies that have remained the same until our present day is another great way to visualize the larger ideas that this film has. The problem is that these ideas don’t fully come to fruition in the character work, as if we have to fill in those four crucial years in the development of the character ourselves. Had we seen them fully realized Celebration could have been a great film; as it is, there are flashes of inspired cinema but on the whole a film that feels like it is missing a piece.