The curing of a young true believer

I saw and enjoyed “Tito i ja” (Tito and Me, written and directed by Goran Markovic) at the 1993 San Francisco International Film Festival. Having returned from my second visit to Croatia (and Serbia where I visited Tito’s Belgrade mausoleum/shrine) and seen the more famous Yugoslavian movie about growing up in the early years of the Tito dictatorship and attempt to forge unity on the Southern Slavs (Yugo-slavs), “When Father Was Away on ‘Business,”, wanted to see it again. The DVD has no bonus features providing context, but all that a viewer really needs to know is that there was definitely a cult of Tito (as Josip Broz he who was born in 1892 in Croatia with a Slovenien mother and a Croatian father, but led a predominantly Serbian Stalinist guerrilla war against the Nazis and their Croatian puppets and favored them in the union of southern Slava) and that his birthday was a national holiday, though ostensibly it was a Day of Youth being celebrated rather than Tito. However, he was officially enchanted with children, and delegations of young communists visiting him for photo opportunities was a central part of the holiday.

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The protagonist of the movie is a fervent 10-year-old Tito fan, a pudgy boy named Zoran (Dimitrie Vojnov), who maintains a scrapbook of photos of Tito (something that was not in short supply in 1954 Belgrade!). In a way it is a bit surprising that he does not eat the glue and/or the pictures of the Great Hero, ’cause his ravenous appetite includes nibbling on the wallpaper (and glue and bits of the wall that are attached). He is even plumper than the protagonist of “When Father Was Away on Business” and his friend—whatever that may mean.

Zoran is not an ace student, being rather dreamy (dreaming of food, dreaming of Tito), but when there is a national essay contest on “Do you love Marshall Tito and, if so, why?”, Zoran writes a passionate poem in which he proclaims that he loves Tito more than he loves his parents. His parents are state-supported artists, so do nothing to discourage Zoran’s fervor, though the aunt and uncle who live in the same apartment (along with their daughter and a grandmother whose husband drops by for noon meals every day) are appalled.

Having produced the most extreme essay of anyone in his school, Zoran has the honor of going on a pilgrimage to Tito’s birthplace. On the train from Belgrade to Zagreb, he is loaded down with food, which he begins consuming even before the train pulls out of the Belgrade station.

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The patriotic youth are going to hike from Zagreb to the birthplace in Kumrovec and the fat boy has trouble keeping up. With no intent to subvert the plans of the adult leader, Comrade Raja (Lazar Ristovski), Zoran manages repeatedly to undermine not only Comrade Raja’s authority but any legitimacy the little dictator has. Raja’s attempts to scapegoat Zoran for his own stupidities mostly backfire.

Zoran has periodic visions of Tito urging him on, but the misrule of the youth troupe by Comrade Raja weans Zoran from his Tito fervor and Zoran makes a speech at Tito’s birthplace recanting his essay, saying his loves his parents and even neighbors more than he loves Tito. This gets Comrade Raja in deep trouble (though Zoran does not understand the repressiveness of the Yugoslav state…)

Despite this, Zoran receives an invitation to join the youth going to greet Tito on Youth Day, so that Tito does not appear only in Zoran’s visions and newsreel footage.

The satire of the Tito cult could not have been made while Tito was alive (he was president-for-live). That it was made during the bloody fission of the union of southern Slavs is almost as remarkable as it would have been for it to have been made during the Tito era, however.

The plump Dimitrie Vojnov is very entertaining in his single-mindedness and in frustrating Comrade Raja as much (if not as knowingly) as the roadrunner frustrates the coyote in cartoons. Lazar Ristovski seems to me to have been channeling Peter Sellers’s Inspector Clouseau in his disaster-prone over-the-top smugness and pomposity. The two totally fail to understand each other.

Zoran is in love with a tall and slender orphan named Jasna (Milena Vukosav) who is also along on the pilgrimage and breaks up with him at least three times (she is much more Comrade Raja’s idea of a proper Young Communist).

The bickering in the crowded apartment and Zoran’s adventures in prominent Tito cult activities are quite funny and the ending is satisfying, though not very surprising. There is nothing particularly notable in the cinematography or music, but Dimitrie Vojnov and those playing his squabbling family members are quite good.

(It is perhaps a sign of aging, that I now have some sympathy for Comrade Raja, though he still seems a fool and would-be toady in my view.)

BTW, I saw not a single example of anything from the Tito cult while I was in Croatia (I did see red-star and swastika memorabilia.) The Tito cult has vanished from view in Croatia as completely as the Stalin cult has in Russia (also see “Goodbye, Lenin” and the collection of Chiang Kaishek statues in Taoyuan, Taiwan). Tito’s mausoleum, the House of Flowers, above Belgrade (i.e., in Serbia) remains a place of pilgrimage, however, almost as big as the Ataturk monument/shrine in Ankara.

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(Tito and me at the House of Flowers, Belgrtade)

 

In 1981, a year after Tito’s death, Milovan Djilas wrote: “Our system was built only for Tito to manage. Now that Tito is gone and our economic situation becomes critical, there will be a natural tendency for greater centralization of power. But this centralization will not succeed because it will run up against the ethnic-political power bases in the republics. This is not classical nationalism but a more dangerous, bureaucratic nationalism built on economic self-interest. This is how the Yugoslav system will begin to collapse.” Boy, did it!

©2007, 2017, Stephen O. Murray

 

 

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