In the Serbian drama “White White World: The Miner’s Opera” (“Beli Beli Svet”), the characters sing, but never dance. Formulated as a modern day Greek tragedy set in the decrepit southeastern mining town Bor, the movie follows a close group of alienated locals through misguided love affairs and other brash misdeeds. But the songs feature no choreography or other stylish methods of breaking the harsh, downtrodden tableaux. It’s a surprisingly effective strategy. With his sophomore effort, director Oleg Novkovic uses musical expression to frame inner monologues that would never work in spoken form. As a result, a story exclusively populated by damaged people engaged in morally ambiguous, often depraved behavior manages to evoke sympathy for all of them.
At its center is King (Uliks Fehmiu), a retired boxer now running the neighborhood bar. Years earlier, he had an affair with erstwhile seductress Ruzica (Jasna Djuricic), an act that led her to kill her husband and wind up behind bars. The movie begins shortly before Ruzica’s release from jail, when the still-swinging King engages in a similarly ill-fated liaison with Ruzica’s rebellious 18-year-old daughter, Rosa (Hana Selimovic). After a few drinks, two engage in fast, passionless sex, and King rushes out the door without a word. When he’s gone, Rosa stares blankly at the wall and lets loose with a mellow tune detailing her sad life.
“White White World” builds tremendous power with this unique rhythm of behavior. Most scenes involve the tense exchanges of two people equally trapped by the claustrophobic setting and the misfortune caused by their actions. The music is a guide to their misery. A mixture of Balkan folk songs and new material composed by Boris Kovac, the soundtrack meshes nicely with a handful of understated performances. Rounding out the cast of main characters, young drug dealer Tiger (Marko Janketic) pines for the disinterested Rosa’s affections, while Beli (Boris Isakovic) — the single earnest person in the whole story — hopes to marry Ruzica and help her find contentment. Needless to say, his goal has little potential.
Screenwriter Milen Markovic develops the morbid scenario with ponderous exposition that grows redundant after the first hour wearily stumbles into the next, but the dry patches in “White White World” are forgivable once a truly demented twist redefines everything that came before. As King and Rosa continue their ill-fated romance, Novkovic skillfully focuses on the contrast between their isolated lives: Rosa, in her youth, hopes to find happiness through true love; King, reckless and jaded, clearly finds her energy repulsive. “Tell me something nice,” she beckons him, a plea that audiences put off by the depressive mood will appreciate. His response is blunt: “No.”
Dripping with irony, “White White World” offers a fierce indictment of its setting. One song, which precedes a suicide, features the most upbeat melody on the soundtrack. An epilogue showcases the movie’s deadpan Greek chorus, a massive crowd of real miners, harmonically declaring their base survival tactics (“We will drink from your eyes/We will eat your stash/The gutter is our mother”). In moments like these, Novkovic displays his vision of the rural town as a place that traps its inhabitants in an endless downward spin.
He’s not the alone in feeling this way. Another recent Serbian feature, “Tilva Ros” (which, like “White White World,” screened in competition at the Locarno Film Festival), also takes place in Bor and highlights the vanity of its residents. The hyperactive young protagonists, with their American-influenced party habits, ensure that “Tilva Ros” has greater potential for finding an audience. But “White White World” provides a fresher experience.
Serbian cinema rarely gains much traction in the United States, with the cartoon violence of “A Serbian Film” most recently grabbing media attention. However, Novkovic’s vision offers a deeper perspective on the country’s more unsettling aspects. Extending the darkness of his story to the real world, he turns Bor’s despair into our own.
An earlier version of this article included a reference to Brillante Mendoza’s “Kinatay” as an example of Serbian film. Mendoza is from the Philippines.