A Film a Week - Toma

 previously published on Cineuropa

For audiences of a certain age in the former Yugoslavia, there is no need to introduce Toma Zdravković, since he was a famous public figure – a true bohemian and a singer of Serbian folk music. Although he died of prostate cancer 30 years ago, many still remember his sad songs about the disappointments and the lack of happiness in love, and the anecdotes from his colourful life, like his passion for cigarettes, booze and gambling. His biography would seem an ideal topic to make a film about, so it was a tad odd that a biopic based on it had not been made yet.

This mistake has now been rectified by Dragan Bjelogrlić (both of the Montevideo movies and the regional hit TV series Black Sun) and Zoran Lisinac (the 2013 Michael Madsen vehicle Along the Roadside). The world premiere of Toma is a fitting choice to close the Sarajevo Film Festival in multiple open-air locations, bearing in mind that the protagonist was also quite popular in Bosnia and Herzegovina, but the film’s chances of being distributed outside the Western Balkans region are slim.

The plot of Toma unfolds on two parallel tracks. The first covers the last few months of his life, from his collapse after a concert in Belgrade until his death at the time of the fall of Yugoslavia in 1991. The key relationship during that part is the one with the doctor played by Petar Benčina, and while the doctor tries to cure Toma’s body, Toma heals his soul. The second story covers the period of over 30 years in which we see Zdravković’s rise from humble beginnings in the town of Leskovac to national fame and fortune, as well as his subsequent succumbing to vices owing to unfulfilled romantic desires and the inherent sadness in his soul that he sang about. The main points in his life are covered there, but the core of the story is a melodramatic subplot involving his unfulfilled romance with fellow folk singer Silvana (Tamara Dragićević), for whom he wrote his best song.

Milan Marić (of Dovlatov fame) plays Zdravković both as a young man and as an old man, concentrating on nailing the “aura” of the character, despite the physical dissimilarities. He does a commendable job, with the only misstep being that his speaking voice is simply not the voice of an elderly man. As for his primary acting partners, Benčina is slightly wooden in his line delivery, while Tamara Dragićević channels the sexiness of a rising folk star with a hint of sadness in her soul. The other characters are usually types (Andrija Kuzmanović fares best playing the comic-relief provider, manager Drda), while some other well-known public figures are relegated to extended cameos, which will probably be corrected in the forthcoming series.

On a technical level, Toma is a decently made film, thanks to the detailed production design by Jovana Cvetković and Jelena Sopić, and the retro-stylish cinematography by Goran Volarević. The plentiful use of Željko Joksimović’s score makes Toma almost (but not exactly) a musical, and some of the connections between Zdravković’s songs and the main points in his life are just too obvious, while the metaphorical connection of the singer’s death to the collapse of the country is simply far-fetched. There is also a problem with numerous plot elements being presented but not quite fully developed, and the over-reliance on melodrama makes Toma even more of a tearjerker than Zdravković’s songs, but this self-proclaimed impressionist portrait of a well-known figure still opens up some new avenues for Serbian cinema.

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