In 2007, “Rooster’s Breakfast” became the most successful Slovenian film of all time, third in seats only to “Troy” and “Titanic.” (176,807 admissions and counting.) Yet it has virtually no presence outside the ex-Yugoslavia area: appearances at FilmFest Munich and a small Madrid festival aside, its success is a perversely insular affair, built around engagements in Sarajevo, Croatia and the like. If dank, depressing Romanian films can conquer the film festival world, why not a leisurely, ingratiating portrait of small-town life built around drinking hijinx and a low-key romance? (Variety didn’t even review it.) Showing tomorrow and Saturday as part of a Slovenian retrospective organized by Lincoln Center and the Slovenian Film Fund, the most commercially successful film in Slovenian film history is barely a blip on the international radar. Director Marko Nabersnik has a few explanations for both why it’s domestically successful and internationally a little inert, and why the Slovenian film industry generally remains below the radar.
“Slovenia is a small country,” Nabersnik explained not more than three hours after landing, for the first time, in New York. “We have a little more than two million people. Yugoslavia was much bigger, with 20 million people, and then there was a war and everything fell apart. Now Slovenia is a small country. Not everyone is capable of going to the cinema; you have 400,000 people who are actually your potential market.” The rewards of making the biggest Slovenian film of all time? “If you make ‘Ace Ventura‘ here, you have a big house. In my country, if you make a big hit like this, you get a new car. That’s it.” It wasn’t always so: when everything was Yugoslavia, it was possible to gain international attention and funding. Nabersnik repeatedly name-checks productions few from the area might remember, with actors slumming for paychecks: 1980’s “The Secret of Nikola Tesla,” notable for attracting Orson Welles, or 1973’s “Sutjeska,” a hagiographic war movie with Richard Burton as Tito. Even that dubious level of prestige is impossible now: “Rooster’s Breakfast” is a relatively paltry 1.3 million Euros, but it took no less than four production companies to put that together.
Part of “Rooster’s Breakfast”‘s success is the way it connects back to that era; Nabersnik says it’s fair to compare his success to the wave of German ostalgie films like “Good Bye Lenin!,” which similarly prey on viewers’ nostalgia for past stability. “There was no unemployment or problems with medical insurance; now we have unemployment, and you have to have money for insurance, like in the United States. In Tito’s times, ordinary guys didn’t live very very well, but about medical insurance and unemployment they didn’t have any worries. People nowadays are saying, ‘When Tito was alive, we lived better.’ This is not completely true, but that makes movies nostalgic.” This is part of what gets lost in translation when “Rooster’s Breakfast” plays abroad; it has a main character, Gajas (Vlado Novak), who talks about nothing but better times under Tito. It seems political, but it’s not. “If you saw this film in my theaters, people were laughing and applauding loudly. My film is neutral; it’s a love story. In my country, my film has no political context. It was not a special period.” It helps that the movie was pre-sold, in possibly the biggest marketing campaign ever for a domestic product, as hyperbolic as any American saturation campaign: “We started the advertising campaign while we were shooting the movie, eight months before it came out.” Slovenian pop-star Severina did a song for the film and appears in it: it became one of her biggest hits. It also helps that the novel’s author, Feri Lainscek, has a following Nabernik compares to Stephen King. It may be a local film, but it was pre-sold in an international fashion.
So much for the domestic market. When asked how to explain the international success of seemingly much more challenging Romanian films, Nabersnik is willing to entertain the idea that certain festival-goers get a perverse enjoyment out of watching decay and depression. ” In Slovenia, we didn’t have any decay. Life in Slovenia is very similar with life in Austria. In Romania, people had a really bad life, and you can sense these things in their movies. Because of that, they are also interesting for festivals. In Slovenia, nothing; not one thing. We had a lot of murders after the second World War, but this is an old story; from the ’80s on, we didn’t have such big dramatic events.” Another festival hook that’s missing? “In Slovenia, the war is only 10 days long, you know? When I look at the film festivals, even a film like Kolya, which is very romantic… they still had their revolution!”
Other problems: “Most of the work I do is on television. I’ve made about 500 different television shows on three- and four- camera setups. Most of the directors work in television. Some make documentaries, TV-movies or commercials. TV is a part of everything.” Which means even if the market was bigger, it would still be impossible to get much done: everyone’s otherwise occupied. And there’s not enough money: “Things are actually going downhill. There is still not enough money from the government for film. The National Theater gets 20 million Euros a year. Film gets six million Euros a year. Film is absolutely at the bottom of the ladder.” Could a break-out film like “Night Watch” — the Russian film that broke the market open — be possible? “We don’t have enough money or technical support. To make such a big film, you have to have all the facilities. We don’t have digital effects I also don’t believe you’ll get a financier in the Slovenian language; shoot in Slovenia, maybe yes, but speak English.”
The one bright spot: close-by European countries. “The story about ex-Yugoslavia is much more well known to mid-Europe; they were part of the war and all that stuff. We’re a part of the European Union now; for the United States, Slovenia is…” He makes a X movement with his hand. “Maybe because of that, they have a little more interest; we are not foreign to them.” And then there’s the tiny matter of a film whose ostensible plot doesn’t even really kick in til the hour mark — and where nothing particularly dramatic happens til ninety minutes in — being a huge commercial success. How to explain this? “The novel is telling a story about people whose life is boring. For my audience, the film is not too slow. For example, in Spain it was well accepted because they know what a slow life is.”