A Film a Week - A Brief Excursion / Kratki izlet

From the description, A Brief Excursion, the first fiction feature by Croatian director Igor Bezinović whose career consists of several documentaries and shorts, seems like a small movie that will attract big labels like “existential”, “artistic”, “meditative” and so on. It follows the group of characters trying to reach an elusive medieval church and see its frescoes that transforms into a journey to a proverbial heart of darkness for each one of them. The film premiered in Rotterdam’s Bright Future selection and met some favorable reviews, so some more festival exposure is likely and it will hit the home turf in Pula and Motovun, but the hopes for some kind of regular distribution, especially abroad, might seem too optimistic.

Still, its modest budget, guerrilla-style shooting against the backdrop of a well-known party destination Motovun Film Festival and the cast of mostly non-professional actors playing the semi-fictionous versions of themselves (all of them are kinda-sorta recognizable faces from the nightlife scene of country’s capital Zagreb) might seem as a gimmick, but it is not, for the most of the time. It is also an adaptation of a well-known short novel by Antun Šoljan that is the part of Croatian high-school curriculum, already adapted by the same filmmaker into his short A Very Brief Excursion (2014), but not in the straight, expected way. It is more faithful to Šoljan’s spirit, style and themes it dwells on than to the chain of real and surreal events it is portraying.

Stola (Bezinović’s co-writer Ante Zlatko Stolica) is our guide and unreliable narrator that tells the story from his memories presumably some years after the events, so some details are not in the right place. Back then, he was an aimless 20-something, probably a student trying to figure out what to do with his life while partying with like-minded proto-hipster people over the course of one summer that might change everything. His almost legendary friend Roko (Mladen Vujčić) proposes the excursion to the monastery ruins near the place called Gradina (which can be anywhere and clearly symbolises the Utopia), and two of them spend the night convincing a group of people to join them.

But the excursion does not go as planned: the bus breaks down and the crew of seven people continue their trip on foot, not exactly sure where they are going. As they are going on and on, things around them are getting more and more peculiar and hikers one by one drop out of the crew for some strange reasons. Do the ruins and the frescoes really exist? Are the young people completely lost? Is it all a dream? Is it all about the journey and not the destination, as the cliché suggests?

Some parallels could be drawn to Andrea Arnold’s masterpiece American Honey, even though Bezinović’s film was shot before Arnold’s came out. The theme is similar, the aimlessness is kinda inherent for young people trying to figure out their own way in the game called life, regardless of someone’s socio-economic status. The other thing is hedonism and partying that rarely breaks the sub-cultural frames. And finally, Bezinović and Arnold both employ some documentarian techniques in their work.

The differences between the two films are notable, though. While Arnold’s characters come from the skid row milieu of American Midwest, Bezinović’s are middle-class to well-off urbanites, more spirited and spiritual. Their hedonism, even though totally within the rigid hipster frame, seems more genuine than Coca-Cola commercial-like parties in American Honey. The type of documentarism is also different, Bezinović shows more emotion towards his characters by keeping the camera fluidly moving around them in close vicinity, trading the grandeur of the statement for audio-visual poetry, while Arnold’s approach is more epic.

A Brief Excursion is not that much about the youth nowadays as it is going for universal, eternal questions of growing up, developing intellectually and spiritually, friendship and the relationship between the journey and the destination, the process and the goal. The source novel was first published in the 60‘s, in socialist Yugoslavia and through it Šoljan was examining the laziness and lack of motivation and courage to confront the authoritarian regime in the search of personal freedom and happiness. Fifty years later, the country and the regime are long gone, the new social frame is also more or less rigid and the revolution (that might be started from a bed, like in Oasis’ song) or a better world still seem like a futile dream.

Modest in the terms of budget, but with a rich and layered story and character development and very detailed in execution, A Brief Excursion is a film worth several viewings over the course of years. Small, but brilliant touches like the slight differences between the text spoken by the narrator and the picture seen on the screen and the sound design in which the ambiental sounds are mixed with occasional bursts of minimal ethno score could pass under the radar. While not necessarily being a masterpiece, A Brief Excursion is more than a sure-handed debut. It is pretty impressive.

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