Friday, November 2, 2007

Train Without a Timetable

The Croatian series at the Walter Reade is turning up a lot of interesting work that isn't well known here in the U.S. Most of the films are scheduled for only a few screenings, and by the time you hear about them, they will probably have returned to the vaults for the rest of your lifetimes.

My favorite so far is Veljko Bulajic's Train Without a Timetable, from 1959. I went in expecting a "Tradition of Quality" work: it was Bulajic's first film, was very popular, and gave the director a favored position in the Yugoslav film system. (He went on to a number of big projects, including international productions like The Battle of the River Neretva.) Off the bat, I made the film for a by-the-book socialist inspirational, with its archetypal/stereotypical characters and its subject of a Tito-planned relocation of a poor peasant village to more arable land. But it was hard to resist the film's widescreen visual style for long. Bulajic relied heavily on his crane, but used it with great intelligence; he shot mostly long takes, often from a slightly elevated camera angle that let him keep two or more levels of activity in the same visual field. The look of the film wasn't so much about neat compositions as it was about the drama inherent in the space, about keeping different groups and planes of action in visual opposition to each other. Mizoguchi is probably the closest visual reference, though Bulajic is more immersed in storytelling.

I came around to Bulajic's side entirely when I realized that his sense of visual drama was in harmony with his subject matter, which centered on a long train ride. While he created attractive shots that reinforced our sense of the characters moving through a changing landscape, Bulajic simultaneously did a fine job handling the dramatic needs of a complicated multicharacter story. The beauty of his style is that his image plan is all about drama, and that he was solving his dramatic problems in front of our eyes as he managed his visual planes.

Though the characterizations were simple and the conflicts were elementary, Bulajic and his screenwriters (one of whom was the Italian Elio Petri, who began a fine directorial career two years after this film) maintained a sense of discretion and distance, and even threw in a few arty, off-balance resolutions along the way. In the final reckoning, there was nothing about the film that I wanted to change: it was all of a piece.

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