Dušan Makavejev’s debut feature, Man Is Not a Bird, bears a simple subtitle: “a love film”. But anyone who knows about Makavejev’s history as part of the so-called Black Wave — a film movement in 60s and 70s Yugoslavia best known for its dark humour, criticism of the socialist regime, and formal experiments — will know better than to expect a feel-good romance from this legendarily rebellious director.
Man Is Not a Bird is less of a straight love story, and more of a socially critical panorama of 60s Yugoslavia. The film’s main narrative starts to unfold when respectable, middle-aged engineer Jan (Janez Vrhovec) comes on a work assignment to a bleak ore-mining town. Detached and professional at first, he cannot resist the charms of his young landlady Rajka, played by Makavejev’s muse and long-time collaborator Milena Dravić.
Another plot line revolves around worker Barbulovic (Stole Aranđelović) and his troubled personal life. At the mine, he is considered the best at his hard and hazardous job, but at home, he is a violent and unfaithful husband. Only vaguely related in narrative terms, these two stories are brought together by the brilliant editing of Ljubica Nesic and Ivanka Vukasovic.
While not without its dry humour (“we’ve decided how the Communists will vote, and, thank God, you are all Communists”) or plain slapstick comedy (there are scenes where locals are hypnotised by a touring magician), overall, the film offers a rather dark exploration of oppression and repression. Man Is Not a Bird is often praised for showing class inequality that still ran rampant in Yugoslavia, despite the state’s professed ideology of egalitarianism.
But the picture also raises questions of gender equality: the women in the film cope with abuse ranging from gruesome domestic violence to demeaning catcalling. Among these, protagonist Rajka is trying to reclaim her power by either pursuing men herself, or accepting their advances. Yet she is still emotionally overly-dependent on her suitors, and we are left unsure on whether she is happy with the end result.
Somewhat similarly to his heroine, director Makavejev also rebelled against social norms — or in his case, state censorship — while adapting to the constraints placed on his work in order for his films to be shown at all. Yet he kept taking risks, and his later films became even bolder both in terms of form and content. The director’s best known title, the explicit and non-linear W.R.: Mysteries of the Organism (1971), was banned, and eventually led the artist into an exile that only ended with the collapse of the socialist regime in the early 90s. More accessible but still soaring high above all conventions, Man Is Not a Bird is a perfect entry point into Makavejev’s provocative universe.
Watch on Eastern European Movies.