In-depth | Film

The symbol of some past time and a country that no longer exists

By - 26.10.2018

Farewell to Milena Dravić, one of the last legends of Yugoslav acting.

Milena Dravić has left, her death also signifying the death of a part of the cultural identity of the former Yugoslavia. She was one of the key, unquestionable symbols of the lost state, a face engraved in the collective memory, an embodiment of, on first sight, a much simpler time that we still cherish so deeply. Although that time is obviously gone.

The reason we loved her was not only the countless roles she played, leaving her mark on the history of Yugoslav and European cinema, but also the way she modestly and proudly nurtured unquestionable urban values. She consistently moved boundaries of personal and artistic freedom, even in moments when it meant jeopardizing her own existence, both in Yugoslavia, and in Milošević’s Serbia.

A young Milena Dravić nearly ended up in the fashion industry, working as a model, which would have forever changed the path of her life and taken her in a different direction entirely. Fortunately, during her first professional engagement in the late ’50s, as a model for the cover of the biweekly magazine Duga, she was noticed by the Slovenian director František Čap, who decided to hire her for his new film.

“The Doors Remain Open,” was the very first movie starring Milena Dravić, and the one which gave direction to her future career. Photo: IMDB.

Croatian columnist and writer Goran Gerovac believes that Čap, both literally and symbolically, guided Milena Dravić’s life toward the achievements for which we recognize her today.

“In 1959, Čap entrusted her with her first film role, a film titled “The Doors Remain Open” (“Vrata ostaju otvorena“),” Gerovac explains. “Everything that was behind that door, and that embodied the artistic work of Milena Dravić, is already well known and many times told, and it would be fair to say deservedly so. The door has remained open for all these decades, and will remain open for those who follow, even upon the death of a great artist.”

"Milena Dravić became one of the symbols of that smoldering time as well as of today's defeated citizenry."

Goran Gerovac, columnist and writer

Gerovac also recalls how Milena Dravić was not afraid to go from playing an epic heroine to plunging into the role of a civilian adulterer, “which, for those who insisted on an agitprop approach, would have been an insurmountable attack on their character and work, while for the art itself it is an inevitable leap into eternity.”

“That is precisely why Milena Dravić became one of the symbols of that smoldering time as well as of today’s defeated citizenry,” says the critic, but he also stresses that her real role in the general cultural scene proved “that the integrative role of great art is very strong and that not even ultra-aggressive politics can easily dismantle it. Because of this, ethnicity in her case is a secondary characteristic, and because of this, the news about her departure was a regional story.”

Becoming a legend

In 1962, a 22-year-old Milena became the youngest recipient of the ‘Golden Arena’ award at the Pula Film Festival, for her role in the film “Overcrowded” (“Prekobrojna“) by Croatian director Branko Bauer. At that time, the festival was experiencing its golden years, and all the significant films produced in Yugoslavia had their national premieres there.

“Overcrowded” placed Dravić among the biggest movie stars of the time, so it was hardly a surprise when she was immediately hired to play roles in several major films from the most prominent director of the time, the Montenegrin with the Italian diploma, Veljko Bulajić, who was close to Tito’s regime.

For her role in “Overcrowded” Milena Dravić won her first Golden Arena at the Pula Film Festival in 1962. Photo: IMDB.

“She has remained in my memory as a top professional, modest but infinitely persistent and determined to get the maximum out of every role,” says Bulajić for K2.0, adding that everyone on the set was a bit in love with her.

After a successful collaboration with “Boom Town” (“Uzavreli grad“), seen as one of the most interesting films exploring gender roles in the period of industrialization and urbanization, Bulajić offered Milena roles in “Kozara” and “The Battle on the River Neretva” (“Bitka na Neretvi“). These were epic war spectacles that cherished the mythology of the National Liberation War (NOB), in which Milena Dravić starred alongside the extremely popular Yugoslav actors Bata Živojinović, Ljubiša Samardžić and Boris Dvornik, as well as contemporary international stars Yul Brynner and Orson Welles.

The road of an artist

In Bulajić’s films, she played three significant but completely different roles, each archetypal in its own way and consistent with social issues at that time. “She did not perform them following a cliché, on the contrary. She brought a completely new, for me even unexpected value to the films we made,” recalls Bulajić.

He was the one who proposed, in Cannes in 1980, that Milena Dravić be awarded for a supporting role in Goran Pasljakević’s “Special Treatment” (“Poseban tretman“), which was unanimously accepted by the jury led by Kirk Douglas, affirming that her charisma and talent transcended Yugoslavia’s borders.

Instead of money and colorful covers, she chose the path of artists gathered in the so-called Black Wave of Yugoslav film.

Her time working with Veljko Bulajić was the moment in which Milena Dravić could have lived a comfortable life of a regime fan favourite and a transnational star who could afford the luxury of choosing roles. And she really chose them, but in a way that almost irretrievably closed the door to the movie mainstream.

Instead of chasing money and colorful covers, she chose the path of the artists gathered in the so-called Black Wave of Yugoslav film, which in subversive and often radical ways questioned the provincial and ideologically clearly defined guidelines of Yugoslav socialist culture.

“Special Treatment” brought Milena Dravić an award for a supporting role at the Cannes Film Festival in 1980. Photo: IMDB.

Her role (along with Jagoda Kaloper) in the movie “W. R. – Mysteries of the organism” (“W. R. – Misterije organizma“) directed by Dušan Makavejev — a movie that was banned shortly after the premiere in the politically turbulent year of 1971 — is iconic. The regime was disturbed by the satirical parallels between socialist order and sexual repression, and the legendary scene is the one in which Milena Dravić holds a fervent speech in the backyard of an Austro-Hungarian building, calling for the sexual liberation of the youth.

“Fuck, people! Fuck!” shouted a passionate Milena from the balcony, throwing a glove in the face of primitivism and small-town mentality. This Black Wave classic was broadcast on television, but not before the late eighties, when censorship was loosened. As time passed, Milena Dravić was “forgiven the sin” of the Black Wave roles she played.

Visionary movie by Želimir Žilnik “Pretty Women Walking Through the City” was another opportunity for Milena Dravić to show how special an actress she was. Photo: IMDB.

In this period, Milena Dravić confirmed her faith and dedication to artistic experimentation by working with Želimir Žilnik, another Black Wave experimenter who did not care for socialist conventions and the popular perception of good taste. The last time they collaborated was on the visionary dystopian film “Pretty Women Walking Through the City” (“Lijepe žene prolaze kroz grad“), which, in 1986, predicted the breakup of Yugoslavia.

A woman of another system

The early 1990s were a difficult period for all those who refused to become part of nationalist hysteria. The actress who truly lived the proclaimed values of brotherhood and unity, while never becoming a socialist cliché, hardly found a place in the new regime that pushed her city of Belgrade into a wave of xenophobic primitivism and war mongering.

Because of her opposition to Milosević’s reign for two decades, she was persona non grata at the Radio Television of Serbia, and film roles in the 1990s were so rare that she had a hard time making a living in Serbia. Interestingly, at the same time she was ignored in other countries of the former state as well.

It wasn’t until 2008, 23 years after her last engagement in Croatia, that young director Sara Hribar brought her back to Zagreb. Once the greatest and most desirable actress of region, Dravić agreed to take a part in the student film “That Little Hand of Yours” (“Ta tvoja ruka mala“) without any hesitation.

"It is an understatement to say that Milena Dravić was modest. Only the biggest divas can do that."

Sara Hribar, film director

“She played the role exceptionally, even with a small dose of unexpected jitters, for which I solely blame her self-criticism and the fact that she had not played in Croatia since 1986,” recalls Hribar. “It is not that she rejected calls, but the phone had not rang for years,” the director added, saying that Milena never bragged, but if asked nicely, she liked to recall old films she held close to her heart, especially when talking to her friends, like Mustafa Nadarević.

Nadarević was her co-star in the Sara Hribar film, and shooting, which lasted all night in temperatures deep below zero, took place in an uncomfortable old car driven by a taxi driver he played. Many young colleagues complained about the working conditions, but Dravić never said a word, the director remembers.

“It is an understatement to say that Milena Dravić was modest. Only the biggest divas can do that,” recalled Sara Hribar, pointing out that we are talking about one of the ‘well rounded, complete actresses’ of the old school who were equally fantastic when singing, dancing, acting or performing.

Hribar was born in 1987, her life began at a time when Yugoslavia was already beginning to disintegrate, but her childhood was still marked by Milena Dravić’s film roles. She will remember her as an actress who “wore an aura of a time in Zagreb in which people were listening to jazz, swing and organized social gatherings for a dandy youth in cosmopolitan Zagreb.”

Others will remember her as one of the symbols of urban Belgrade that defied all dogmas of the 20th century, as a shy girl from a neighborhood or even as one of the boldest sex symbols of the former Yugoslavia. Milena Dravić had as many faces as roles. She simply defined herself as an actress and a Belgrader, a Dorćolka (from the Dorćol neighborhood), without emphasizing class or national affiliation.

“The value of an artwork is reflected in its comprehensibility that surpasses political boundaries, in a space that does not need to be integrated into legislation in order to communicate with one another,” Gerovac says, adding that Milena, avoiding this narrow frame, is not a symbol of the Yugoslav, but certainly is of an urbanity.

The role played by Milena Dravić in the movie “Gunpowder Barrel” preserved remains of the citizenry in Serbia overpowered by nationalism. Photo: IMDB.

Gerovac points out that through the symbolism of life on film, and film as a life, Milena Dravić was eventually put on the bus in the film “Gunpowder Barrel” (“Bure baruta“). It was a film about Belgrade, one of the violent and dangerous neighborhoods at the end of the last century, where she, as an urban and retired lady, uses her public transportation privileges while a number of events, triggered by different circumstances, are raging around her. She sits at the front of the bus and waits for the driver “who is drinking his coffee” to come, so the bus can depart, embodying the decency that in today’s world means weakness.

“In her obedience to the moment lies also the psychopathology of every fear of any action that the civic among us turned into a permanent state of defence,” says Gerovac, adding that political parties and this fateful historical period are nothing but transient stages and short-lived illusions of power that become proportional to our “bus silence” and endurance. “Art, culture and talent go beyond [this state], passing space-time concavity and distortion and continue their way behind the open doors of that other world, which we are not even sure exists,” the critic concludes.

As an honorary guest of the Pula Film Festival, proud and humble in her greatness, perhaps the greatest actress from the region was genuinely moved looking at 5,000 people applauding her as if they did not know how to ever stop.

At this point, it would be worth mentioning all the Golden Arenas, the awards from Cannes and Venice, the fact that in one movie, “The Dark Side of the Sun”, her son was played by a young Brad Pitt, or that Orson Welles was fascinated by her character and work, but the significance of Milena Dravić has long since transcended her numerous formal recognitions of the profession.

In an intimate memory of the author of this text, she will remain carved in the moment of our last encounter. It was this summer, in the same Arena that celebrated her in 1962. As an honorary guest of the Pula Film Festival, proud and humble in her greatness, perhaps the greatest actress from the region was genuinely moved looking at 5,000 people applauding her as if they did not know how to ever stop. We did not know it at the time, but with this applause we said our last farewell to Milena Dravić.K

Feature image: Creative commons.

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