By Jake Bibby
Dir: Jovan B. Todorovic
Jovan Todorovic’s quasi documentary, drama and Serbian historical film, The Belgrade Phantom, details the ten-day joyriding escapades of Vada Vasiljevic in 1970’s Belgrade. The exact date is 1979, and under the firm leadership of Josef Broz Tito, the economically flourishing socialist state of Yugoslavia is witnessing its first anti-hero. As members of the cities criminal underworld are pressured by the increasingly befuddled police force, the citizens of Belgrade line the streets night after night hoping for a glimpse of the man they call the phantom. Armed with the stolen, yet vastly superior Porsche-Targa 911-s, the police struggle to halt the phantoms rampages through the city, but with growing embarrassment for both the police and politicians, efforts to stop the phantom take a sinister turn.
What is most interesting about The Belgrade Phantom, is its marrying of different cinematic styles. As the film begins, we are firmly entrenched within a documentary format, as archive footage of seventies Belgrade accompanies the film’s opening credits. Following the credits, Todorovic then begins to establish the story of the phantom through various interviews. Todorovic interviews policemen and criminals, journalists and photographers as well as eyewitnesses, whom all help detail the various events that took place over the course of ten nights. Soon after, Todorovic then begins to infuse the film’s acted scenes, as the film flirts between documentary and staged scenes. Admittedly, the transitions between the two styles are handled with finesse, seamlessly drifting out of one into the other, yet in doing so; the scenes in which the actions are staged begin to lack any real substance. The various car chase scenes, although well choreographed, are somewhat tame. This is not a film for fans of gung-ho car chases as seen in films such as Gone In 60 Seconds and Drive as emphasis is placed firmly on the story as opposed to its action sequences.
Furthermore, Todorovic does very little with the actual character of the phantom. Vada Vasiljevic’s character is sullen, seemingly acting without any notable reason why. Todorovic does not aid the phantom with any dialogue within the film, thus the reasons for his actions are never revealed. Instead it is left to the cast of talking heads to speculate as to why the phantom did what he did. Was the phantom making a political statement [?], attempting to embarrass the Yugoslav state whilst Tito was on international duties in Cuba [?]. Ultimately, these questions are never answered, which when coupled with the film’s underwhelming action scenes, render The Belgrade Phantom a little flat.
However, despite the aforementioned critique, there are redemptive qualities to this documentary-cum-narrative. Whilst somewhat lackluster, there is an element of mystery regarding the phantom’s actions that generates a lingering sense of intrigue; well after the film has finished. The ability for film to stimulate curiosity in particular subjects is one of the medium’s most powerful attributes, and The Belgrade Phantom does indeed do this. Even if the film poses more questions that it answers, the concept of the ordinary man outwitting the police has been a popular theme within cinema since Robin Hood was adapted for the big screen. One-upmanship always makes for humorous viewing, especially when it’s the police and politicians who are those that suffer at its hands.
The Belgrade Phantom is a film for those whom enjoy quaint, almost folkloric tales from around the world, whilst it’s combining of both documentary and staged film can serve as the ideal blueprint for those with similar ambitions. Despite its shortcomings, there is still an admirable subtlety to The Belgrade Phantom that will undoubtedly appeal to just as many people as it does not.
You can watch The Belgrade Phantom today at FilmDoo (UK & Ireland only) today