Abeceda straha (The Alphabet of Fear)

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“Croat in the act”

abecedastrahaIt’s late 1943, during the Second World War: Yugoslavia is still occupied by Axis forces and their sympathizers, but with Italy now invaded, the end seems near. Local partisans find themselves infiltrated by collaborator spies; to find out who they are, they send Vera (Bojanic) into the house of the Bolner family, whose patriarch (Zappalorto) works for a bank and is believed to have a list of the spies. Her cover is basically playing dumb, for who would suspect illiterate servant girl Katica of being a partisan? However, it’s not as easy to play dumb as you might think, especially when one of the family’s daughters takes it upon herself to teach Katica how to read and write. Vera also has to handle unexpected visitors who recognize her, suspicious German officers and surprise searches, while communicating what she finds back to her handler. The list, however, remains elusive, until one night when an Allied bombing raid sends the family and their dinner-party guests to the cellar, perhaps giving Vera the chance to find what she has been seeking.

Set almost entirely inside the family’s house, the film is very good at generating a tense, paranoid atmosphere, where any knock at the door could signal the end of your life, during a time where the secret police had almost unlimited powers. The problem is, that”s just about all it does, and up until the final 10 minutes or so, there is an evenness of tone and approach which ends up being quite soporific. As should probably be expected from a movie produced during the Cold War, when Yugoslavia was ruled with an iron hand by Marshal Tito, it’s not exactly subtle on the characterization front, with the heroic Communist partisans being the good guys, while ze Germans and their (admittedly, very nasty)  local collaborators, the Ustaše, villainous to a T. If not exactly caricatures, there’s not much attempt made to make them human About the only character with depth is Bolner, whom you sense is operating out of a sense of expediency, to protect his family, rather than any deeply-held belief in National Socialist principles. It does also rely on Bond villain acts, in particular Vera being shown the list, when there is absolutely no need to do so.

Bojanic does a decent enough job of portraying the heroine, striving to maintain her persona and be as unobtrusive as possible, while taking any chance to ferret through her boss’s possessions in search of that list. Unfortunately, this is a over-simplistic story, definitely in need of further fleshing out with plot twists and turns, if it was to have a decent chance of resonating with a modern audience. While my interest just about survived, there were some dicey moments.

Dir: Fadil Hadžić
Star: Vesna Bojanic, Josip Zappalorto, Nada Kasapic, Tatjana Beljakova

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