Cheery samba music certainly isn't the soundtrack you'd expect to accompany newsreel footage of Marshal Tito, the former Yugoslavian dictator, receiving the reverence of his people. But that's exactly what we get in Tito and Me, a whimsical coming-of-age story set in 1954, when Tito was at the height (such as it was) of his glory.
Not that we're in for a panegyric to the one-time boss of the Balkans. As director Goran Markovic has made clear, he blames the present Bosnian conflict on the man who -- by force, if need be -- brought Serb and Croat together. "All of the causes of the current civil war come from the past, from Tito's era," Markovic has said. "The big lie was the way that everyone and everything -- different nations and religions -- were harmoniously unified in Yugoslavia. Tremendous pressure was imposed upon us to love each other.... After his death, everything returned to reality -- and to blood."
Given such political passion, it's astounding that Markovic could write and direct a gentle period piece about a stubborn, overweight little boy whose twin passions are worshipping Tito and eating plaster. But to the filmmaker, who began shooting his movie four days after the shooting began in 1991, there's something funny and stupid in the hypnosis of idol worship.
His main character, ten-year-old Zoran, isn't merely "rounded," as his grandmother says. Zoran is tubby. When his bratty cousin catches him peeling back the wallpaper in his family's crowded Belgrade apartment to scoop out the cherished white stuff, she denounces him as a "fat degenerate." Her language comes from her parents, who in general disapprove of Tito; Zoran's parents in general approve of the regime. Their concern is focused on Jasna, a dreary orphan girl resembling a prepubescent Olive Oyl who has caught Zoran's eye. When Jasna announces she'll soon be leaving Belgrade on a "March Around Tito's Homeland," Zoran is heartsick, pining so much he can't eat.
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His salvation seems to lie at school, where his Tito-obsessed teacher announces that the winner of a literary contest -- "Do You Love Tito? And Why?" -- will also go on the march. Zoran, normally a C-student, is inspired and wins, writing a poem that ends, "I love Tito more than Mom and Dad." His parents are proud, if a bit confused. Zoran is thrilled, until he meets Raja, the petty bureaucrat in charge of the expedition, who takes an instant dislike to him. Zoran and Raja square off on adventures not at all picaresque. Ultimately, though, the boy's innocent blunders comically work to serve him well.
Markovic, a superb filmmaker, is better here as director than as writer. He frequently places the camera squat to the ground, just like Zoran is, and dresses his rotund trekker like a Bavarian burgomaster. In addition to incorporating newsreels, he fluidly weaves fantasy sequences about Tito into the narrative. In one, the anxious young paramour imagines that, since a blowhard teenager has impressed Jasna, the head of state has stolen his girl. But once the plot moves away from the ideologically opposed -- and idiosyncratically interesting -- family, it broadens and lectures: Zoran is picked on, perseveres and holds hands with a plump little girl who offers him cream puffs.
The film ends on a high note. Zoran recants his earlier judgment and issues a list of people he infinitely prefers to Tito: his parents, his family, Johnny Weissmuller as Tarzan, the "local loony," even "the gypsy who repairs the casseroles." It's a wonderful moment not just because political justice has been served, but because it's so singularly childlike. This is a boy who discovers he'd rather stuff his face with food than with Tito. And Dimitrie Vojnov, as the stoic Zoran, is a delight, as are all the performers.
Tito and Me.
Written and directed by Goran Markovic. Starring Dimitrie Vojnov. 104 minutes. Screenings June 24-26 at the Museum of Fine Arts, 1001 Bissonnet, 639-7515.