Set in post-World War I Serbia, Tears For Sale is a surreal fairy tale in the best traditions of Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Terry Gilliam. It tells the story of a remote village whose male population had been decimated by the war, leaving them with just one ancient bedridden man.
When virginal sisters Ognjenka (Sonja Kolacaric) and Boginja (Katarina Radivojevic) attempt to feel his papery touch go awry and lead to his accidental demise, they are condemned to death by the other women of the village.
However, they manage to save themselves by promising to set out and bring back a man within three days, thus setting the scene for an adventure through the Serbian country in search of men, all the while dodging other rival women and a witch’s curse, sent after them to ensure their return.
As has been noted elsewhere, Tears For Sale is a fairy tale come to life. People are fired out of cannons miles into the air without harm, cars drive themselves, ghosts mingle with the living, and witchcraft collides with the modern age. If magical realism or surrealism has any appeal for you, then there will be much to enjoy. The film that was brought most to mind was Jeunet’s A Very Long Engagement. The tone and palette of the films are very similar, as are the prevalent themes within each.
Tears For Sale is all about the loss of a generation, and the unfulfilled ambitions, hopes and dreams of lives together. A scene early on shows the women of the village drinking together and then hallucinating the spirits of all the men they have lost. The message is clear. They would rather dance with ghosts than live in the reality they are faced with.
In fact, the entire film can be seen as an extension of this dream versus reality, and is a way of reconciling the fantastic with the mundane. In a world which has robbed a country of its future, then surely anything can happen?
Tears For Sale is endlessly inventive visually, and has an incredibly opulent look for a film made for under £4 million. It looks the equal of films ten times the price. The cinematography makes you believe in magic, and the fantastic. Nothing seems out of the ordinary despite it quite clearly being so.
In fact, the whole thing is decidedly reminiscent of an ethereal dream experience. Everything makes complete sense while you are watching it, but afterwards you realise just how wonderful and creepy it was at the same time!
This visual tone perfectly complements the narrative tone of the piece. Despite moments of broad comedy and several knowing digs at gender conventions, the film plays it all straight down the line, thereby balancing the tricky divide between the surreal and the terrible, in this case the loss and sadness of lives cut down.
It is clear that this is an examination of an important issue in Serbian culture, and even without a deeper understanding of the issues as stake, and the Serbian national myths explored/mocked, it is a powerful and relevant statement.
Of course, a film often rests on the performances of its leads, and in Radivojevic and Kolacaric it has a formidable pair. Both sell the necessary sense of frustrated waste that their lives have become (in their own eyes), and make compelling heroines which we can root for.
Kolacaric also gets to feature in a incredibly extended sex scene which is one of the films only missteps, as what starts off as being a passionate embrace of all she has missed and a rejection of her former life becomes soft pron-like after the several minutes of grinding.
The other performance of note is Stefan Kapicic as the Charleston King, a dance hall dandy who is not as superficial as he seems.
In a year that has seen the country’s film output dominated by discussion of A Serbian Film, it is a pleasure to have this 2008 work released finally on DVD. It is a complex and thought-provoking look at a country and people decimated by endless conflict, and the desperation which goes hand-in-hand with this.
It is a film suffused with sadness, but also etched with hope for a brighter future, although it is made clear this will not come without greater sacrifice.
But is also a film which makes you believe in the power of magic, and how cinema can make this come alive for you in a way no other art form can. Full of memorable characters, set pieces and a triumphant, evocative score from Shigeru Umebayashi (House Of Flying Daggers, 2046), Tears For Sale is a joy to watch, and one which will make me take a closer look at Balkan cinema.
There are, sadly, no extras on the disc, which is a real shame as I would have loved to have seen a ‘making of’. On such a small budget, the film looks incredible, and such a feature may have taught budding filmmakers a thing or two.
Tears For Sale is out now and available from the Den Of Geek Store.