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Variola Vera
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by Jay Seaver

"There are no small poxes."
5 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2010 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: Wow... Looking at the IMDB page for this, I am SHOCKED to see that Rade Serbedzija played the womanizing doctor in this movie. I had him completely pegged for the Albanian Muslim who serves as patient zero, because his career lately has been variations on that sort of hirsute guy of Eastern European heritage. My mind is blown. Now I'd like to see more of his early career, especially if this tense account of a 1972 smallpox outbreak is representative.

The film starts with Halil Redzepi (Dzemail Maksut) contracting variola vera while on a pilgrimage to the Middle East and returning to what was then Yugoslavia, but soon it drops us into the middle of a hospital soap opera, with all the necessary ingredients: There's Dr. Grujic (Serbedzija), a scuzzy type who has made his way through much of the female staff, but has yet to have any success with Danka Uskokovic (Varja Djukic), the newly-arrived lady doctor who is as professional as she is beautiful. There's Dr. Dragutin Kenigsmark (Erland Josephson), the head of the hospital, who has a history with Dr. Markovic (Dusica Zegarac). The administrative director, Upravnik Cole (Rade Markovic), is having an affair with Slavica (Vladica Milosavljevic), trampy enough that you know she's been a notch on Grujic's bedpost. There are long-term patients, maintenance men, and hangers-on, and it's chaotic enough that one almost doesn't notice Redzepi staggering in, getting the runaround until he's vomiting blood, and nobody at the hospital connecting his symptoms with smallpox (it's extinct, right?) until an outside expert, Magistar Jovanovic (Aleksandar Bercek), insists on placing the hospital under quarantine.

Though made in the early 1980s, Variola Vera dramatizes an incident that occurred ten years earlier, and it feels like a 70s movie. Not just in that it does what I presume a good job of recreating 1972 Belgrade, but also for the general tense atmosphere combined with solid character work. It feels very pre-Jaws/Star Wars, a mirror image of the paranoid thrillers that came out on the other side of the Iron Curtain during that period, complete with a subplot about the government wanting to keep news of the outbreak quiet, not just to avoid a panic, but to avoid looking backward to the west. Indeed, contrary to the expectations Americans might have of Eastern European productions during the Cold War, writer/director Goran Markovic doesn't appear to have any trouble showing institutions as corrupt and/or ineffective.

Style and history aside, this is a great quarantine movie. It sets up a large cast of characters that may not all be sympathetic but are still easy to recognize and relate to before letting loose a virus that can work its way through all of them. Markovic is impressively uncompromising in giving us an unflinching look at this disaster - he makes us watch innocent and likable characters die, makes sure that we get a good idea of what an ugly, painful death it must be, and continues to crank up the tension and despair as the movie goes on. It's no small feat to keep finding new depths without making them seem to come out of nowhere, but Markovic manages it, finding the sweet spot between tragedy and thriller.

For that to work, you need a good cast, and the entire ensemble here is strong. The stars of the show are Rade Serbedzija and Varja Djukic, and they're well-served by how the film doesn't force an unwanted romance at the audience. Serbedzija is, as already mentioned, a very pleasant surprise for those of us who know him only for his later English-language roles; while he now makes a living on being weathered but wily, with the ability to erupt, this earlier iteration is perfectly smarmy, but Serbedzija is able to show us how the desperate situation brings out both the best and the worst in Grujic. Djukic, in what appears to be her first role, hits just the right note as Danka - she's young and idealistic, apparently sincere in not wanting to be treated special due to her privileged upbringing, but Djukic never lets us miss that she is the product of that upbringing. And while those two have the most prominent roles, the supporting cast is uniformly strong as well, from Dusica Zegarac's no-nonsense senior doctor to Aleksandar Bercek's gruff and experienced smallpox expert.

I suspect that "Variola Vera" will become the standard by which I judge outbreak films in the future; it's based on a true story, but not every fact-based drama feels this authentic, and not many fictional films are as as thrilling.

link directly to this review at http://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=21205&reviewer=371
originally posted: 09/06/10 23:46:14
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2010 Fantasia International Film Festival For more in the 2010 Fantasia International Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

9/15/13 jason Saw this at the Rotterdam film festival in 2001, what a brilliant film! 5 stars
10/20/10 dejan excellent review of an excellent film! 5 stars
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