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Masked critiques of the system: Balkan comedies during the socialist period
‘Laughter is a vital factor in laying down that prerequisite for fearlessness without which it would be impossible to approach the world realistically…’ – Mikhail Bakhtin (1981: 23)

The complicity between the comic and the tragic has very old roots, coming from Classic literature. At the end of Plato’s Symposium, Aristophanes and Socrates remained awake discussing how probably comedy and tragedy had similar origins. According to Andrew Horton comedy in cinema, unlike the epic, has often escaped close scrutiny for several reasons, such as historical bias, but its cultural and historical significance should not be undermined (1991: Introduction). Comedy cannot systematically be categorised under one totalising theory, nor is a plot necessarily funny in itself. Rather, the comic can be found in individual jokes or gags. The affirmation “no film plot is inherently funny” allows a film to always be potentially comic, melodramatic and/or tragic. My analysis of Balkan films made during the socialist period, where each can be labelled as a ‘comedy’ stems from this premise, but as we will see further, each film contains comic and tragic elements, often interchangeable, of everyday life in a socialist society. Satire, parody, comedy - the carnivalesque - derive from popular culture and subvert the dominant mode through humour offering a form of liberation and psychic release.

Through this paper I explore how Balkan comedies during the socialist period use traditional comic conventions inherited from silent cinema to offer critiques of the political and social systems through the analysis of three films: Ciguli Miguli (Yugoslavia, 1952,
released in 197, dir. Branko Marjanović), Koncert në vitin 1936/Concert in 1936 (Albania, 1978, dir. Saimir Kumbaro), and Господин за един ден/ King for a day (Bulgaria, 1983, dir. Nikolay Volev). Travestied in comedies, these films provide parodical portraits of authorities and governing figures, as well as critical views of the social and political situations by gazing back at the past; Concert in 1936 and King for Day are both set in the mid 1930’s in rural areas of each country respectively, in monarchical Albania and in royalist authoritarian Bulgaria, whilst, Ciguli Miguli is supposedly set in an undefined time by the inter-title at the start of the film informing the viewers: “So it was once upon a time” but clearly takes place in post-war Yugoslavia. Ciguli Miguli was the first and the only “banned” Croatian film, as it was considered an anti-socialistic and anti-bureaucratic satire by the ruling communist party at the time, and only released 25 years later in 1977. Alongside other Soviet and Eastern European comedies, these films work as subversive criticism of the system through the use of satire, parody and visual jokes.

All three films draw on stylistic and visual conventions of silent comedies (especially those of Chaplin, Keaton and Harold Lloyd) and employ these elements to create a range of comic characters and situations. These can be seen in the misadventures of the poor peasant Purko in King for a Day, the water fight in the town’s square between the musicians in Ciguli Miguli and the policeman’s mannerism in the rural community Lushnje in Concert in 1936. In each of the films comic tension is provoked by the arrival of one or more foreign characters to the village or town. In Ciguli Miguli the party functionary Ivan Ivanović tries to reorganise cultural and artistic life of a small provincial town according to socialist and party values thus causing chaos and unrest. Whilst in Concert in 1936, two well educated female musicians want to give a concert in the traditional and patriarchal village of Lushnje consequently provoking tension within authorities and villagers.
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Ana Grgic is currently working on her PhD in early cinema history of the Balkans at the University of St Andrews. In 2011, she received her Master Degree in Cinema Studies from the University of Sorbonne Nouvelle – Paris with a dissertation on film restoration theory.
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