A Film a Week - Mouth Full of Earth / Usta puna zemlje

 previously published on Cineuropa

Mladomir Puriša Đorđević (1924-2022) was a Serbian and Yugoslav filmmaker whose career spanned a period of over 70 years. As a director, he made more than 60 fiction features, shorts, documentaries and mid-length TV dramas, while as a screenwriter, he penned more than 70 scripts in all of the aforementioned formats. He was one of the pioneers of the Yugoslav Black Wave movement in the 1960s and 1970s, and that period of time marked the most prolific and most successful part of his career. He never retired from filmmaking: after finishing and presenting his documentary Monsieur (2021), he took on the demanding project of adapting a novel that was deemed unadaptable, Branimir Šćepanović’s Mouth Full of Earth (1974). Đorđević’s final movie, Mouth Full of Earth, premiered as the closing film of Belgrade FEST three months after his death.

Đorđević opens and closes his picture with a meta-framework located on a movie set in a wooded area near Belgrade. In the opening part, he shares an anecdote about his first encounter with spoken German during World War II, in his native town of Čačak, and his surprise at the silly songs that the German soldiers would sing. He admits that he expected more refinement from a nation that had such a strong presence in the realm of classical music.

That introduction does not have much to do with the adaptation of Šćepanović’s novel, which occupies the main part (60-plus minutes) of the film’s compact 75-minute running time. That main narrative thread follows Marko, played by Radivoje Bukvić (who has only recently returned to Serbian cinema after forging a career internationally). He is a man who, after being diagnosed with a terminal disease, flees from a hospital into the woods. Trying to hide away from the world in general, he also runs away from people who chase him for their own material reasons. In the process, Marko remembers other times in his life, both happier and unhappier ones.

Mouth Full of Earth can hardly be called a coherent piece of cinema. The reason for this is the very source novel, which pretty much follows the stream of consciousness of the protagonist, and in his script, Đorđević basically accepts this ground rule, even introducing some fleeting new characters, such as Sonja Kolačarić’s nurse. In terms of his directing, he tries to channel the same energy and the significance of his vintage 1960s works, most notably his war- and post-war-themed trilogy consisting of The Dream (1966), The Morning (1967) and Noon (1968), but of course, those same tactics and tricks cannot work equally well after more than 50 years have elapsed.

Luckily, Đorđević is able to rely on his actors and crew. Bukvić undeniably has star power (best seen in Mélanie Laurent’s Breathe) and the perfect physique for action-packed scenes (he is also a veteran of smaller roles in A Good Day to Die Hard, Taken, Our Kind of Traitor and Run All Night, to mention a few), Sonja Kolačarić has a strong and enigmatic presence in her most intriguing screen role so far, while the legendary Peter Božović seizes one more opportunity for a brilliant bit part. Gino Sgreva’s camerawork is kinetic and attractive, and the same goes for Marko Ristić’s editing and the eclectic choice of music. In the end, Mouth Full of Earth does not qualify as one of Đorđević’s masterworks, but it is certainly a film with the strong signature of a master filmmaker.

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