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November 30, 2012

Leptirica (1973)

According to an old Serbian legend, in the village of Zarožje there was a man named Sava Savanović, who worked in the mill that was close to the river Rogačica. Despite already being an old man, Sava Savanović married a beautiful young lady he loved. However, the young lady was in love with Sava's brother, and the couple began an affair. In an act of fury, Sava Savanović murdered the two lovers inside the mill. When the villagers of Zarožje discovered the crime, they captured and lynched Sava Savanović, and then buried his corpse deep in the woods. Soon after this rumours were heard about Sava Savanović, who supposedly now was a vampire roaming the old mill. With this legend, Sava Savanović would become one of the first vampires in Serbian folklore, and his popularity was such that celebrated writer Milovan Glišic wrote a novel based on the old story ("Posle devedeset godina" or "After Ninety Years" in 1880). The plot of this novel would be taken as basis for a TV movie released in 1977 by director Djordje Kadijevic with the name of "Leptirica" ("Лептирица").

"Leptirica" (literally "The Moth" or "The She-Butterfly", which is the English title of the film), begins with the mysterious death of the town's new miller, Vule (Toma Kuruzovic). As he prepares to spend the night at the mill, Vule is murdered by a strange creature with dark skin and long fangs. The following day the villagers are worried since Vule is the fourth miller in the year to be killed under strange circumstances while spending a night at the old mill. In the meantime, the humble Strahinja (Petar Božovic) is madly in love with the beautiful Radojka (Mirjana Nikolic), the daughter of rich landlord Živan (Slobodan Perovic). Strahinja asks Živan to allow him to marry his daughter, but he refuses to accept his daughter marrying someone as poor as young Strahinja. Disappointed, Strahinja decides to leave the town, but instead ends up convinced to take the dangerous job of miller. Strahinja spends the night at the mill and manages to survive the monster's attack. After this, Strahinja and the villagers decide to discover the nature of the creature, so they find out about the legend of Sava Savanović.

Adapted by director Djordje Kadijevic himself, "Leptirica" is developed precisely as the thing that originated it in the first place: a folk tale. That is, at taking "Leptirica" to the screen, Kadijevic opts to give it a simple approach, avoiding to make the plot too complicated and focusing in enhancing the legendary (or better said, mythical) aspects of the story. Thus, the characters are basically a group of classic fairytale archetypes, in a story that transcends its origin in Serbian folklore and becomes a universal tale: "Leptirica" becomes essentially the story of a young humble man who must prove his worth to society and himself. The vampire myth in "Leptirica" is more a force of nature, with Sava Savanović acting as demon of the woods, an opposition to the civilized villagers. There's also in "Leptirica" a subtle subtext of vampirism taken as an equivalent to sexual awakening inherited from Glišic's novel. With a certain touch of comedy, Kadijevic keeps his plot between horror and fantasy, using a light-hearted tone that evokes the rural fairytale origin of the story of Sava Savanović.

Director Djordje Kadijevic makes a simple yet effective work in his making of "Leptirica", capturing the atmosphere of myth that the story has with great skill. In fact, this atmosphere is perhaps the most important element in "Leptirica", as Kadijevic manages to give his film the sensation of being set in an undefined period of history, in a timeless fantastic Serbia where myth is mixed with reality. This is particularly obvious in the horror scenes of the film, which have a certain surreal beauty in their craftsmanship thanks to the great use given to the work of cinematographer Branko Ivatovic. However, Djordje Kadijevic isn't that lucky in the making of the comedic scenes of his movie, which feel a tad forced and stagy, in sharp contrast to the aforementioned horror scenes. Certainly, Kadijevic is a devoted horror fan, (in fact, his 1969 film "Darovi moje rodjake Marije" was the first 100% Yugoslavian film with horror touches), and this becomes obvious in the great care given to the making of the horror scenes. Nevertheless, it would had been better if the same care had been put in the rest of the film.

The performances in "Leptirica" are a bit regular, as while there are a couple of great quality works, others aren't really that good. Of the former it's worth to point out the work of Petar Bozovic, whom plays young Strahinja, the archetypal rural hero of the story. Poor and humble, but noble in heart, Strahinja would rather leave before watching his beloved married to another man. While looking a bit too old for the part, actor Petar Bozovic makes a pretty good job and manages to capture the naiveté and nobleness of his character. However, it's actually Slobodan Perovic whom shines the most in "Leptirica" as the harsh landlord Živan. Perovic makes an excellent job, to the point that it would had been good to see more of his character. Young actress Mirjana Nikolic also makes an effective performance as Radojka, the beautiful daughter of Živan. The change her character endures as the film unfolds makes her an iconic figure of Serbian horror. The rest of the as isn't really up to the level of the aforementioned, and this is probably one of the film's weakest elements.

Done as part of a series of horror movies for the Yugoslavian television (the other films are "Devicanska svirka", "Sticenik" and "Zakletva", all directed by Djordje Kadijevic), "Leptirica" suffers from the technical and budgetary limitations of being a product made for television. However, the real problems of "Leptirica" aren't really related to its poor production values (director Kadijevic manages to do wonders with limited resources), but with his screenplay, which seems to be divided between a desire for being both a true horror film and an accessible rural comedy at the same time. Kadijevic fails to keep a balance between both genres, resulting in haunting horror scenes of great quality and moments of comedy that feel cheap and rushed. The contrast between them is abysmal, and truly show that the real interest of director Kadijevic was in the horror moments of his film. Despite this problem, "Leptirica" is still a quite interesting vampire story that, spiced up by Serbian folklore, gives a nice spin to the classic myth.

Considered as a classic of Serbian horror, the work of Djordje Kadijevic offers an interesting vision of the genre deeply rooted in his country's folklore. From amongst his works, "Leptirica" is perhaps the better known film, a movie that perfectly captures the essence and symbolism of Serbian folktales and transports them to the screen. Owner of a surreal atmosphere and an interesting visual design, "Leptirica" presents an interesting twist to the vampire myth, portrayed in the film as a force of nature that evokes the ancient fear to the unknown, to the savage: the woods, the darkness, the night. More symbolic than descriptive, the film is a faithful representation of a mythic struggle in film. While far from being a masterpiece, "Leptirica" has a certain charm that could only be described as "magic".

7/10
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5 comments:

The Bloody Pit of Horror said...

I was VERY disappointed with this one, especially considering it has an 8 rating on IMDb. I did like the general atmosphere but the writing was weak and the whole thing was just bland and predictable. I also thought a lot of the comedy seemed sorely out of place.

J Luis Rivera said...

Yes, the comedy bits ruin many of the film's best moments (akin to "Last House on the Left", but on a greater scale).

I think that a lot of the love this film receives comes from the people who saw it as a child back in the old Yugoslavia. I guess that watching this as a kid the impact would be greater.

Marin Mandir said...

I don't know how you stumbled upon this one...

I liked the film, don't mind the humor, either. It was refreshing to see some jokes tried out in a horror. The sequence where the milestone stops is probably not as strong today as it was back then, but it is still scary and well done.

I don't even mind the short running time, I just wish it was scarier and more dynamic. But then again, it is always refreshing to find a fantasy/sci-fi film outside the English speaking world.

J Luis Rivera said...

It made me want to see more horror from the former Yugoslavia. I found it in Youtube, my friend.

Junaid Walayat said...

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