It is rare for me to mention a film featured at the annual Croatian Film Festival in New York, and even rarer to be so entertained during a single, unpaused viewing. Such is the charm of this handheld experiment that resonates beautifully with its subject matter: the birthday party (of sorts) of fifteen-year-old Iva (Masha Mati Prodan) in Zagreb. The invited guests are few – her mother Zeljka (Anja Šovagović-Despot), her father Božo (Ivo Gregurević), and a greatly anticipated German client (Karl Menrad). For her fourteenth birthday, Iva received the camcorder with which the whole film will be shot. This gift will have to do for her fifteenth birthday as well, as her special day has been superseded by the family’s immediate monetary needs. Yes, Božo drives a Mercedes (apparently a common sight in Croatia owing to the large migrant population in Germany), and, yes, the family lives in a rather nice, if unhesitatingly middle-class apartment with a balcony that will look rather good from where you’re sitting. But this is apparently not enough. Herr Hoffner (whose name comes from the German for “hope”) is expecting big things from this business deal and must be treated as an honored guest. Honored guests should be served scampi, even if, Božo exclaims in one of many hysterical moments, he must go to “Mars” to fetch them. The stakes are high and no one in the family is particularly amused at the pressure of the evening.
Much-needed levity comes in the form of Iva’s older and rather parasitic brother Darko (Boris Svrtan). What is lovely about this character is the complexity with which he is imbued. In a lesser film, an unwelcome Darko would bound merrily into the family dinner, get plastered, offend said honored guest, insult his bourgeois parents, sob in self-loathing, and then continue with his pathetic revolution. We are offered instead the most complex of all the engine’s cogs. Doubtless, Darko is a drunken loafer; but he is also uncannily sharp and knows exactly how to handle the small situations that elude the sledgehammer straightforwardness of his father. He notes, for example, that Croatia is renowned for its beauty queens and suggests that they procure one for the German to ogle. “Is he married?” inquires Zeljka innocently, to which her husband replies in the affirmative. “But he’s coming here alone?” That is all the impetus Darko needs. Soon he dials up an old flame who he claims has a perfect command of Herr Hoffner's mother tongue. After numerous barbs are exchanged and Darko and sobriety part ways, the doorbell rings and, as promised, a young and frisky Croat by the name of Nina (German-born Barbara Prpić) appears and immediately addresses Božo with a slew of German niceties. The automaticness with which Nina proceeds provokes an unpleasant thought that is soon confirmed when she reveals her “area of study.” She speaks Croatian, German, French, and English, but does something quite different with her precious time.
About two-thirds the way through, all hope appears to be gone. Surely, we tell ourselves, it would be a symbolic coup for Hoffner not to come, for the more economically advanced nation to shun the humble fare of its southern neighbor, and for the whole evening to disintegrate into a microcosm of the failing marriage of Iva’s parents. But such predictability is reserved for far less thoughtful films. Here there is no Waiting for Hoffner, no existential angst, no musings that would befit spoiled and ungrateful members of our privileged society with too much time on their soft, white hands. This is a family who works harder than most and has little time for philosophy. By this point, Božo is so upset that he whacks the camera, which reacts poorly to the swift violence committed upon it, and for a few moments emits a hideous buzz in black-and-white. I doubt whether any director would have had the testicular fortitude to let the rest of the film run in that annoying format for the sake of metaphor, so we soon return to normalcy. When we resurface into the bright world of a Zagreb October, our German friend has indeed arrived. In the first shot, he is all we can see, sitting at the head of the table and, to fulfill a Teutonic stereotype, extremely apologetic. “I am glad to see,” he adds with a humble smile, “that Zagreb was not devastated in the war.” We are then shown the entire table, with Božo handicapped by his poor English to Hoffner’s right, and Nina on his left keeping their client linguistically and physically interested.
From here the film takes a few more conventional steps, but they are the right ones. The insufficiencies of a dinner at home cajole the group into dining at an upmarket restaurant, and Herr Hoffner continues to negotiate with Božo, who he knows cannot convey the slightest nuance in his English. Nina refocuses her attention on Darko and Hoffner begins to talk up a flirtatious Zeljka, perhaps because she seems to have suffered the most abuse that evening. Actually, it is Božo who gets the short end of just about every stick, but he also makes the most important decision in the entire film. And let us not forget Iva, who for her birthday just wants her family to be together, and happy, like any other fifteen-year-old girl might.