Plastic Jesus (1971)
Directed by Lazar Stojanović
April 15-21 at MoMA
As the opening credits inform us, Lazar Stojanović’s Plastic Jesus was “filmed in 1971, arrested in 1972, convicted in 1973 and set free in 1990.” The fate of this film and its director, as well as its poetic subject matter, constituted a watershed in the tumultuous history of the short but intensely lived Yugoslavian Black Wave. Stojanović’s film represents in fact the pinnacle of formal and political provocation beyond which almost none would venture further. If up until then, censorship in Yugoslavia was, according to the film critic Milan Vlajčić, an “astute and subtle self-managed system of ideological repression that had officially censored only one film (the 1962 omnibus film Grad) and put on trial another one (Žilnik’s Early Works),” Plastic Jesus landed its director in jail.
The film disjointedly chronicles the life of a Croatian underground filmmaker (Tom Gotovac impersonating himself with a touch of Brechtian humour) struggling to make ends meet in Belgrade, whose busy streets are at some point graced by his full-frontal nudity as he decides to run through them, shouting “I’m innocent” with no clothes on. Edited into the film, in inflammatory (dis)order, are archival footage of Yugoslav partisans, Nazi soldiers and anti-communist Chetniks, interspersed with images from an erotic film the protagonist is working on, and absurd vignettes of his daily life and tribulations. Caught between two loves, two hairdos and two irreconcilable impulses—that to create and that to make an ordinary living—our doomed hero will not settle for less.
Plastic Jesus‘ free-form and rousing questioning of Yugoslavia’s mythological officialdom and libidinal critique of orthodox socialism did not go down well with the authorities, who immediately blocked the film. It was not publicly screened for the first time until the 1991 Montreal World Film Festival, where it won the FIPRESCI award; this weeklong MoMA run effectively constitutes a New York premiere. Stojanović’s maverick film, which was produced by the Film Workers Association Center and the Academy of Film, Radio, Theatre and Television, is an occasion to savor the seditious extents to which the New Yugoslav Cinema pushed itself. Unlike Western Europe, where underground filmmakers benefited from the economic renaissance and consequent cultural upheaval brought about by the Marshall Plan, film directors in Yugoslavia radicalized state cinema from within, testing the limits of a relatively tolerant regime at their own expenses. While artistic dissidence in the West was not only tolerated but also co-opted by the arthouse industry, in Yugoslavia directors like Stojanović, Želmir Žilnik, Dušan Makavejev and many others precipitated the nihilistic dream of the 60s into a black wave of unprecedented imagination, putting their films and careers on the front line, not (only) on the red carpet. One hopes that this special presentation of Plastic Jesus will rouse interest in a chapter of film history still largely unknown in the English-speaking world, one that holds in store an incredible wealth of cinematic delights and unexplored potential.