White Suit

(Belo Odelo)

Lazar Ristovski, the respected Yugoslav actor best known to Western audiences for his role of Blacky in Emir Kusturica's Palme d'Or winning Underground, makes a decent directorial feature debut with The White Suit, a film that strenuously tries to combine surreal and poetic qualities (associated with Kusturica) with a simpler, down-to-earth yarn about a trip taken by a military officer to his home town to pay tribute to his deceased mother. With a setting mostly confined to a train, narrative is at once too theatrical and allegorical, employing a gallery of characters that is not particularly interesting. The most striking element of this pic, which should play in major international film fests, is its determination not to let the broader politics override its thematic concerns.

Functioning as producer, writer, helmer and lead actor, has given Ristovski an unparalleled measure of freedom, which he easily applies to what seems to be a personal, if not terribly visionary film. Helmer's theatrical origins as actor and stage director are unmistakable, even when the story goes out of its way to be “cinematic” in its few outdoor scenes.

Riding his bike in the forest, Savo (Ristovski) introduces himself in a whimsical narration as a single, sensitive, middle-aged military who likes to write and recite poems. His only attachment is to his white dog, Petko, which follows him wherever he goes. In the first scene, Savo is informed by his superior that a telegram from his brother Vuko asks that he immediately come to the funeral of their mother, who had suddenly died. Vuko makes only one request, that Savo brings his one and only white suit.

After a 10-minute prologue, story switches to the train, where Savo meets a number of characters: an older gentleman (Velimir Bata Zivojinovic), a pimp (Dragan Nikovic), who travels with a group of prostitutes, some soldiers and drunkards. It's no accident that the characters are nameless (the priest, the train driver, the conductor, drunkard I, soldier II, and so on), for Ristovski uses them in a symbolic manner that strives for universal meaning.

Only exception is Carmen (Radmila Shchogolyeva), a beautiful Russian prostitute who's presented by her jealous pimp as deaf and mute. Instantly smitten with Carmen, Savo becomes determined to save her from the clutches of her exploitative boss. In the climax of an all-night sequence, which occupies half of the movie, he declares love to her in 100 different languages, ranging from French to Albanian and even Yiddish.

Switching from one compartment to another gives the loosely structured tale some vivid color, though the limitations of the setting often make for a stilted movie. In this and other respects, narrative bears resemblance to classic films such as Stagecoach or Grand Hotel, in which disparate characters are thrown together by circumstances into an intense situation, which brings to the surface deeply personal and social conflicts. In this movie, chief emotional strain is provided by Carmen, who's desperate to escape her pimp and start a new life, but in a tragic-comic shootout, both she and the pimp lose their lives. Ristovski carries some surprise in the last reel, when Savo meets his brother (played by helmer in black cowboy hat and boots).

As in Kusturica's recent work, there are attempts at slapstick humor and surrealism, though these–and other Felliniesque touches–often feel extraneous to the proceedings. Ristovski's graceful presence dominates every frame, but his performance is contained in what's finally an inconsequential, not terribly wild or illuminating film.