Features, Film

Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival (PӦFF27) Dispatch #3

The Balkan Oppenheimer and a Moroccan occupation


The Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival (PӦFF) runs in-person in Tallinn, Estonia from November 3-19. The Boston Hassle’s Joshua Polanski will be reviewing and interviewing live from Estonia as part of his multi-outlet coverage of the festival. Be sure to check out his website for updates on additional coverage. 

GUARDIANS OF THE FORMULA (2023) — dir. Dragan Bjelogrlić

Hot off the heels of Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer, Serbian actor-director Dragan Bjelogrlić made the superior 2023 film about the fragility of humanity in the face of nuclear weapons. Guardians of the Formula (or Guardians of the Formula: Chain Reaction as the intertitles call it) tells the true story of 1958 reactor incident at the Vinča Nuclear Institute just outside of Belgrade and, interestingly enough, the invention and application of bone marrow transplants by the French oncology professor Georges Mathé. The “Balkan Oppenheimer” is both an exceptional medical procedural and nuclear film, likely making it one of a kind in this respect.

The doctor, or “professor” as he constantly corrects, is here played in a brilliant and cutting performance by Alexis Manenti, who looks a bit like a more pensive Jim Parsons. After the accident, four Serbian physicians irradiated, led by their professor Dragoslav Popović (Radivoje Bukvić), fly to the Curie Institute in Paris for treatment by Mathé, perhaps the only person in the world who can save their lives. He’s only ever tried the experimental transplant on mice and neither the “recipient” nor “donor” of the small rodents ever survived the treatments. Struggling to recruit donors, the hospital staff, a car mechanic, and others gamble with their own lives. In another apt comparison to Nolan, Bjelogrlić conservatively reveals information about the events of October 15, 1958 as the physicists near death with flashback match edits throughout the film’s runtime—thereby making one dramatic throughline from two timelines.

Mathé, in addition to being something of a hero during the Nazi occupation of France, had deep philosophical commitments against the development of nuclear weapons; “You don’t deserve to be saved,” he tells Popović, who clearly withholds information about the nature of their research from the physician caring for him. How can he save men actively trying to nuclearize Yugoslavia’s weapons supply? The professor is faced with an impossible decision, yet one he never wavers in. Manenti is magnetic and quite reserved because of both the weight of life on his shoulders and also because of what those lives might represent—but one never gets the sense he’s a bad person. 

Bjelogrlić and editor Milena Predić reveal information about Vinča and the bone marrow transplant like a game of chess, only moving their Queen when they truly need to. They don’t create an anxiety-inducing thrill ride, like Oppenheimer, but an emotionally moving story about the relationship formed between the French medical staff and Yugoslavian physicians which creates another sort of chain reaction. The match cuts—a hospital bed in Paris to one in Yugoslavia, for example—are cleaner and ideologically loaded, whereas Nolan’s film bears his standard messiness in the editing room. The comparison is about as clear as Tallinn is cloudy: the “Balkan Oppenheimer” is the better film. 

Guardians of the Formula took home two awards at the Locarno International Film Festival, where it had its world premiere, including the Variety Piazza Grande Award, and the Audience Award for Best Feature Film at the Sarajevo Film Festival. The film competes in Tallinn’s Focus: Serbia and South-East European Neighbours program and had the honor of opening the festival. 

FEZ SUMMER ‘55 (2023) — dir. Abdelhaï Laraki

Set on the eve of Moroccan independence from their French occupiers, Abdelhaï Laraki’s Fez Summer ‘55 is the most timely film of the festival: a pressing story of an Arabic-speaking people’s resistance to violent occupation. 

Oumaïma Barid captivates as Aïcha, the beautiful neighbor next door to the 11-year-old Kamal. Her eyes pull the camera closer, instantly placing the viewer on the correct side of the struggle. She grows to love her neighbor as the somewhat annoying little brother that he is. His love (and appreciation of her beauty), though, proves strong enough to transform him into a resistance fighter at his young age. There is no ideological backing or agitprop motivating Fez Summer ‘55. It’s a story of simple good guys and bad guys. Of course, in military occupations there are good guys and bad guys and it is that simple. 

Still, the romantic call-to-arms almost comes across as trivializing, especially when corroborated with a rather sheltered depiction of the French occupation in the first place. We see just enough to ensure the sides are clear—good and bad—but not more; perhaps a creative decision to assure the potential of the broadest possible audience, one that can be included on mature family viewing nights, it’s still frustrating to see occupation made so palatable. The few moments of violent eruptions make sure to limit the flow of blood and the actual impact of the violent acts on the bodies. 

The lived-in Moroccan medina helps give the film its summer feeling. And, in a way, Laraki successfully combines the traditional “summer film” (think Summer with Monika or even Before Sunrise) with the resistance film (The Battle of Algiers or Red Sorghum). Temporary love, warm colors, tragedy, and adolescent growth meet the gun imagery, foreign languages, and state terrorism of resistance films. Of course, the love is not a romantic one (though Kamal certainly wants that), but a sister-brother-comrade one. 

The film impressed this viewer in its careful avoidance of contemporary refractions of social make-up and easy metanarratives; this is not the story of Morocco then as told by Morocco now, but a film inclusive to the historical Moroccan Jewish community, even featuring a major kippah wearing side-character named Moshe. Even better: the character takes the side of the resistance. It’s very easy to neglect the community which numbered nearly 350,000 in the 1950s, when the film takes place. The population today numbers just ~2,250. This small nod is a warming sign of the care the filmmakers put into their resistance film. 

Fez Summer ’55
dir. Abdelhaï Laraki
114 min.

Guardians of the Formula
dir. Dragan Bjelogrlić
120 min.

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