Uros Stojanovic's Tears for Sale is a lush, exuberant, fantastical fable of a movie, the kind of film where it's plainly obvious you don't ask why something is possible, or what the logic is behind the plot twists - you simply sit back and let the ambience carry you away. It's a history lesson, of sorts, in that it gets the viewer to ask precisely what real world events could have prompted its creation. It's a love story, a bold, shamelessly theatrical, tragic romance and it's a hugely entertaining matinee adventure.
It's the 1920s, the aftermath of the first world war has descended on rural Serbia, and the tiny village of Pokrp is in trouble. All the men have long since marched off to die on the battlefield, save one decrepit, bed-ridden senior citizen. When two virginal sisters (Katarina Radivojevic and Sonja Kolacaric) desperate to find out what it's like to experience a man's affections accidentally kill off the oldster, the other women condemn them to death.
Desperate for a reprieve, the sisters offer to venture into the outside world and find a replacement male, but end up with two candidates, both travelling conmen - a strongman (Nenad Jezdic) and a smooth-talking lothario (Stefan Kapicic). One of the sisters will have to give up her beau, but which?
A smash hit in its domestic Serbian market, the film can easily be read as one long freewheeling allegory for the state of the country's psyche and its formative influences. But where other directors might have gone for arthouse miserablism in an attempt to lend the subject matter the appropriate gravitas, Stojanovic elects for a kind of grandiose magical realism instead.
Right from the opening scene Tears for Sale employs a rich, vibrant, computer-enhanced aesthetic palette that draws on faded medieval illustrations, Gilliamesque cartoon exaggeration, Jeunet & Caro's sense of whimsy, a seedy music hall grandeur and a kind of ramshackle visual energy that ties all these and more together.
The village is fading away not merely due to the lack of men, but because the last soldier left their vineyard strewn with mines and forgot to tell anyone where they were. The neighbourhood witch is a cackling sorceress complete with skull headdress who binds the spirit of the sisters' grandmother into ensuring a dreadful punishment should they fail to fulfil their bargain.
The strongman, shot from his cannon, literally soars through the clouds; the dead return to haunt the living; the set dressing is a riot of jumbled curiosities with the air of a Jim Henson fantasy. It's a captivating mash-up of genre influences in which the starting points are obvious enough but where the background to the storytelling gifts the production an identity very much its own.
It bears noting the current cut of Tears for Sale is ruthlessly short, less than eighty minutes minus the credits (though even they're gorgeous enough to be worth watching). The way the plot skips through key scenes can occasionally seem a little too disconnecting even for those prepared to buy into Stojanovic's artistic approach.
But while the story may not gel into an immediately coherent whole - perhaps even less so if you're not from or personally invested in the history of the region - the themes and subtexts are still conveyed clearly and inventively enough the film is clearly much more than a parade of striking imagery.
All four principals turn in some brilliantly nuanced performances. Tears for Sale is earthy, extrovert and some of the symbolism is arguably a little too on the nose, but even in the most flamboyant set pieces there's a fantastic sense of layers of painful hidden meaning trapped beneath the surface of whatever's going on. Seeing the sisters fighting the other women over their men, the village dancing with its ghosts or the narrative callback in the coda can be explosively, even hilariously melodramatic, yes, but also quietly heartbreaking.
Tears for Sale does seem occasionally rough around the edges - the effects are less than seamless, with many coming off as absolutely stunning, yet a few closer to low-budget television. It feels a little too enigmatic in places, without the visceral impact of other films trying the same fairytale approach, like Lee Myung-Se's wildly underrated Duelist.
film remains a triumph, a witty, intelligent, laudably adult fantasy
in a world that's beautifully fleshed out, where sex and death are
thrown in for much more than gratuitous effect. It's far from
perfect, but it's compelling, fulfilling stuff and a welcome
contribution from a film industry that's too often overlooked. This
is a nation's pain reinvented as raw, heartfelt, and irreverent
entertainment and it comes strongly recommended to anyone who's the
least bit interested.
(Thanks go to Icon Home Entertainment for facilitating this review.)