A Film a Week - Die Before Death / Umri prije smrti

 previously published on Cineuropa

Sometimes the fact that a film is the product of domestic cinema and that it is envisioned in an audience-friendly manner is enough to secure it a world premiere in a popular sidebar of an international film festival. The track record of the filmmaker also helps: Ahmed Imamović’s Go West (2005) had a healthy dose of festival exposure back in the day, but nothing can hide the fact that Die Before Death seems like the odd one out on the programme of this year’s Sarajevo Film Festival, where it has been shown as an Open Air screening. Consolation for Imamović, his producers, and his cast and crew may come in the form of the fact that, with the national telecommunications operator and national radio and television station on board as co-production companies, its distribution (at least nationally) is secure.

The anti-hero of the film is Dr Zlatan Begović (Adnan Hasković, briefly glimpsed in small roles in Snowpiercer and Twice Born), a gynaecologist with a flexible moral compass when it comes to performing abortions. However, what defines him is his vanity, and his toxic and overblown self-love. His wife, Vesna (Mona Muratović), is sick and tired of their marriage, in which both of them are in love with one person – Zlatan himself. When he learns that he is in the terminal stages of cancer, he embarks on a physical, fantastical and metaphorical journey of self-searching in the company of some undertakers, the Churchill brothers (Milan Pavlović and Almir Kurt), as a passenger in their hearse. He visits a number of fantastic settings and receives various pieces of advice of a ritualistic, religious and philosophical nature, but perhaps the reason for this nightmarish journey of his lies in his past and in the relationship with his old flame Senka (Aida Bukva). Will he realise anything and change his ways accordingly before it is too late?

There is no modesty in terms of Imamović’s ambition with this one, starting with the four-chapter structure, each section equipped with a philosophical-sounding title (“Destiny”, “The Road” and so on) and bumper-sticker motto. But the story that he and his co-screenwriter Dragan Komadina tell simply does not live up to this ambition, eventually ending up in Hallmark Channel territory, dripping with sappiness and naivety. Most of the jokes in the film are played safe, for cheap giggles, although one particular vignette works in its sheer outlandishness, mostly thanks to the role of the boxing referee, played by the one and only Rade Šerbedžija in typical larger-than-life mode. Other actors’ hamming is simply not as efficient, but to their credit, their characters are written in a pretty one-dimensional way.

Imamović tries to compensate for the lack of a relatable story and characters with his music video-like directing style, bursting with heavily filtered colours and attempts at “money shots” of Bosnian locations, both urban and rural. The production and costume design, handled by Sead Gološ and Una Stjepić, respectively, aim for lavishness, but eventually hit mainly kitsch notes. Accompanied by the omnipresent and overloud soundtrack scored by Adnan Dado Mušanović and Ena SmajićDie Before Death is often an exhausting, but rarely rewarding, viewing experience. It’s banal and naïve, rather than philosophical and life-like.

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