Fine Dead Girls, a 2002 Croatian import from co-writer and director Dalibor Matanić just now making its Stateside DVD debut, comes touted in press notes as one
of the best movies from its homeland of the past decade, but the fact that it garnered much
attention due to its allegedly “controversial and provocative themes” sounded a certain warning bell in my head. Would this be just another case of awkwardly foregrounded “issues cinema” masquerading as higher art? No, thankfully, it turns out. Fine Dead Girls is a stunning, fascinating work — deserving of all the accolades it’s rung up, and also a much wider audience.
The feature debut of Croatian national Matanić, who studied directing at the Academy of Dramatic Arts in his home country and earned an MFA in filmmaking at New York University, Fine Dead Girls centers on Iva (Olga Pakalovic, delivering an amazing performance) and Marija
(Nina Violic), a lesbian couple who together rent a small apartment in a seemingly quiet
building in the run-down town of Zagreb. What initially appears to be safe love haven
quickly turns into a nightmare, however, steeped in bizarre supporting characters that one can imagine David Lynch appreciating. Behind every door is a depraved or wounded neighbor with their own not-so-private story of
suffering and betrayal — a vivid echo of Croatia’s recent past as the
country slowly emerges from years of ethnic violence and bigotry during the Balkan
At first, landlady Olga (Inge Appelt) seems to be pleasant enough, but she quickly proves to be a narrow-minded gossip, and then even more detestable. There’s also an old man (Ivica Vidovic) who may or may not have recently murdered his wife (which is what Olga suspects), but now still lives in secret with her decaying corpse. Slightly more adjusted is prostitute Lidija (Iadranka Dokic), who blithely turns tricks for money and store credit alike, except when it’s her “week off” (read: her period). Lidjia’s customers include Olga’s sneering, hotheaded son Daniel (Kresimir Mikic), who develops an increasingly aggressive crush on Iva. About the only residents not outwardly broken or grotesque are the kindly, mentally handicapped Ivica (Ianko Rakos), the son of a doctor, and Olga’s live-and-let-live husband, Blaz (Milan Strljic), who is forever trying to soothe her tempestuous impulses.
The performances here are almost uniformly strong, but none more so than Pakalovic, whose plaintive face and mournful, swallowed silences — she knows of everything cruel in the world, but doesn’t rage against it like Marija — speak quiet volumes about the state of Croatia’s collective national psychology. Co-written by Matanić and Mate Matisic, Fine Dead Girls trades partially in allegory — especially with respect to supporting plot strands involving an abused wife and an apartment abortionist — yet it never relinquishes its grip on contemporariness, its feeling of being very much a product of and commentary upon its place and time. Matanić achieves this, in measure, by using a framing device that immediately puts an intriguing distance of around five years between the beginning of the film and most of the events herein. He also spikes his narrative with different tones — a pinch of urban horror, some mystery, some dark comedy — that keep one leaning forward, and guessing as to the direction the movie is taking. It all finally builds to a shattering climax, before some of the pieces are put back together again, leaving one hurt but hopeful.
Housed in a regular Amray case with a deep-set tray and snap button, to better ensure no in-case slippage, Fine Dead Girls is presented as part of First Run Features’ “Global Lens Collection,” and that colors the nature of its scant supplemental inclusions. In addition to a more generalized “Global Lens” trailer, there are biographies and descriptive capsules on other specific releases, as well as copious Global Film Initiative notes and a historical background of Croatia, available on DVD-ROM. This wealth of information is good in providing some bit of worldly context for potentially land-locked, far-flung viewers, but this is such a fascinating little movie that one is left really wanting at the very least some interview material with its writer-director and arresting lead actress. To purchase the movie via Amazon, click here. A- (Movie) C+ (Disc)