Maratonci Trce Pocasni Krug / The Marathon Family Running the Honor Lap
Review by Adam Balz
Posted on 10 December 2008
Source bootleg DVD
Crematoria are the future in civilized countries!
Appropriately, Slobodan Sijan’s The Marathon Family opens with footage of the assassination of Yugoslavia’s King Alexander I. As the King’s motorcade proceeds down a crowded street in Marseille, a sudden commotion erupts around his car. Soon we see his lifeless body lying in the street, blood pooled around his head; Louse Barthou, the French Foreign Minister and a fellow passenger, is slumped over in the backseat, also shot. It is 1934, and through this soundless, black & white footage we’ve witnessed more than just the end of the “January 6 Dictatorship”: this is the death of silent film.
Sijan’s film, set six months after the Marseille shootings (and in a world of sound and color), is the story of six generations of small-town undertakers. Founded by Pantelija Topalovic, the bedridden 150-year-old patriarch, the family business is based in a ramshackle old funeral home where each successive son fights for control except for one: Mirko, Pantelija’s great-great-great-grandson. A lanky and awkward young man whose interest lie elsewhere – namely, in the town’s small, makeshift movie theatre, where an old friends runs the projector, and in Kristina, the object of his affection, who plays the organ accompaniment to silent films – Mirko is the constant target of his father’s physical and verbal abuse. Laki (“Lucky”), on the other hand, is an insecure opportunist; a half-hour into the film, when Pantelija passes away, Laki wastes no time in trying to substitute the old man’s foyer portrait with his own, then volunteers him to take the maiden voyage in their pristine new crematorium. Grandson Aksentije and great-grandson Milutin object, substituting instead the carcass of a dead cow for the incinerator’s trial run. Not unexpectedly, the machine malfunctions; the carcass is cooked but not burned – and is, in the very next scene, served at a family feast – and Laki is harangued for his selfish disregard and lack of respect for family.
The only other member of the family is Pantelija’s son Maximillian, a white-haired mute who is bound to a wheelchair and communicates using a bike-horn language that only Aksentije can understand. His primary concentration, outside of his father and the family business, is Olja, the family maid. There are no Topalovic wives or mothers, we learn, because of a family curse: “Our dear Father,” Laki says at Pantelija’s burial, “you know that our house has always been unfortunate with women. As soon as their son is born, they begin withering like flowers.” Which makes Mirko’s pursuit of Kristina tinged with great irony, considering she would be marrying herself into early death—that is, if she even wanted to marry him.
Kristina happens to be the daughter of Billy Python, a local gangster who leads a ragtag mob of gravediggers, including a giant who drives the getaway car – his head sticks up through the cab roof – and a gun-toting dwarf. And not so coincidentally, the mob’s main clientele – in fact, their only apparent clientele – happens to be the Topalovic family, which has “hired” them out to dig up old coffins so they can be cleaned, painted, and resold for a hefty profit—a profit that has mysteriously disappeared, much to the chagrin of Billy and his mob. It is Billy pushing for his Mirko to marry his daughter – to gain some money through inheritance – but Kristina is unwilling, caught in a paradoxical relationship with Mirko’s friend Djenka, the projectionist.
Paradoxical in that Djenka has recently begun screenings films with sound, rendering Kristina and her musical skills unnecessary—Mirko must beg his friend to let her play, even if only during the opening advertisements. And while she is utterly infatuated with him, she flies into a fit of rage during the first showing, turning over the “screech-box” that gives the film its sound and taking to her trusty organ before her father and his gang appears – with suspicious speed, as it happens – and forces everyone in the theatre to leave.
A love triangle soon develops between all three, based around Djenka’s desire to become a filmmaker. He extols the wonders of Hedy Lamarr and her infamous early work while trying to persuade Mirko and Kristina to kiss on-camera, saying it’s nothing more than fantasy—roles completely separate from reality, and therefore completely harmless. By the film’s end Mirko will stumble upon Djenka and Kristina together near a local lake, engaged in the fulfillment of their yearnings for one another.
Kristina – and, for that matter, her father and his gang – personify silent film, from her dependency on its survival to the gang’s Keatonesque bumblings, while Mirko comes to represent, in all his gracelessness and inelegance, the rawness of sound. When the country’s leader is assassinated in the opening footage, his death mirrors that of Pantelija Topalovic in that it leaves his citizenry – his “children” – without an identified heir to the throne. Much of the story after that is focused on the Topalovic men struggling for control over the family business—even though, ironically, they’ve doomed themselves to some financial despair with the installation of a poorly functioning crematorium, which erases the need for coffins altogether. It is Mirko, after Pantelija’s will has been read – the old matriarch, in a fit of rare wisdom, bestows everything on himself – who takes control over his disorganized clan in the film’s final few scenes and leads them off to face Python and his gang.
Similarly, the scene immediately following the opening assassination footage is of Mirko scouting out the apartment of a dying man from the street. Dressed as a priest, he is waiting for this man to expire so he can swoop in, at his family’s insistence, and take his measurements – a crafty and opportunistic way of securing new business – making the first images we see after Alexander’s bloody body framed by the circular lens of a telescope, recalling the irises and masks of silent film. When Mirko weasels his way into the apartment, he discovers a man whose size is unprecedented: his legs jut out between the bars of the bed’s footboard, and Mirko must draw reference marks on his knees when his measuring thread runs out. Laki doesn’t trust the figures his son brings back, attacking him with a plank of wood and denouncing him as an idiot. And it’s only those final few moments, when Mirko escorts his family into the future – defeating the embodiment of silent film in an Arthur Penn-style flood of violence and driving off into the unseen sunset – that they are brought together as one and disappear into the future.