Devil’s Town, a sort of depraved take on ensemble slice-of-life films, follows a disparate group of characters over the course of a single eventful day in Belgrade. I’ll be the first to suggest that my cultural ignorance may result in my inability to understand its reason for being, but that was my gut reaction. Tons of characters, situations, wanton violence, rampant sex and nudity, and a cultural obsession with tennis pro Jelena Jankovic all add up to a film that’s never dull but also never quite meaningful.
Writer/director Vladimir Paskaljević does an admirable job balancing numerous storylines despite the film’s relatively short running time. It opens with Jelena Ivanović (Marija Zeljković), a poor girl who wants to take tennis lessons like her obnoxious friend, Ivana (Mina Colić). She needs money, but her mother (Andrea Erdély) makes very little money and is currently distracted with a man (Nenad Pecinar) she met on the Internet; meanwhile, Jelena’s father (Radoslav Milenkovic) has taken a vow of silence in preparation for becoming a monk. He lives in what looks and sounds like a subway tunnel, so clearly he’s not a sound financial source for Jelena’s lessons.
Then there’s Ciril (Uros Joviĉić), whose girlfriend Natalija (Jana Milić) dumps him. Enraged, he visits a brothel run by Marna (Lena Bogdanović), Ivana’s mother, and pays for sex with Nutela (Márta Béres), whose husband Viktor (Igor Đorđević) is too preoccupied with a tennis match to do anything with their baby other than feed him beer, which ultimately results in the baby being taken away by child protective services. Nutela is also visited by a former gynecologist (Vlasta Velisavljevic) who has a heart-attack. Unbeknownst to her, the gynecologist is the father of Viktor’s best friend, Filomen (Goran Jevtic), who’s obsessed with making an awful-sounding film with a score he’s composed himself, consisting of harmonica and primal screaming. Filomen blackmails his father into financing the film in exchange for finding his businessman brother, Boris (Nebojša Milovanović), who has recently returned to Belgrade after family issues forced him to travel abroad.
In case you’re not getting the point, it’s this: there’s a lot going on, and all these people are connected to each other in unexpected ways. It’s alternately funny, bizarre, upsetting, titillating, and shocking. Nothing really jells, though. It’s not that it needs some kind of overarching story that brings everyone together, but it would be nice if it had a unifying theme to give all these storylines meaning (and “Isn’t random chance funny?” doesn’t qualify). It plays out as a series of chaotic events, but what is Paskaljević trying to say about chaos, or chance, or anything?
As I said, maybe the answer’s in there, but it sailed over my uninformed head. A Serbian audience may draw all sorts of meaning from these events, which may hold cultural significance that eludes me. So I’m stuck as the ugly American, relying on my instinct to not recommend this film because I have my doubts that the average American filmgoer would understand it any more than I did. But let me tell you, I’ll be pretty frustrated if I’m right and the film has the same problems in Serbia that it does here.