Mosaic / Reviews / February 1, 2012

Serbian film simply divine

“Mi Nismo Andjeli,” or “We Are Not Angels,” is a 1992 film made in former Yugoslavia, from which most of my family hails. It exposed me to Serbian culture before I understood what it meant to be Serbian, and to this day — after visiting the country several times and learning more about my roots — it remains endearing for me, both a solid film on its own and a reminder of where my cultural education began.

You’ve probably heard the story before: a playboy has one one-night-stand too many and impregnates his latest catch. This particular playboy is Nikola Milojevic (Nikola Kojo), smooth but lazy, as charming as he is callous.

The girl is Marina (Milena Pavlovic), a meek, bookish high schooler who resolves early on to keep the baby. They live in Belgrade and are clearly shaped by their social milieu, yet their conflict is universal.

It’s unsurprising, then, when Nikola can’t remember sleeping with Marina — he was pretty drunk, after all. We expect Marina to enlist her best friend “Buba” (Branka Katic) to bring them back together. But if you foresaw the angel and devil skirting the sidelines, betting on whether true love will win … Wall Street could use a seer like you.

Yes, there is a literal Angel (Uros Duric) and literal Devil (Srdan Todorovic) who kill time wandering Belgrade, placing bets on whether a person will do good or bad.

They’re the proverbial “shoulder angels,” only neither cares much for the person they tempt or protect. In an early scene, Angel and Devil overlook a man about to leap from his window.

Devil eggs him on. Angel asks him to reconsider. He jumps, and the two watch him fall with detached interest before floating on to the next window, where their competition begins anew.

The film takes off when the divine interlopers set their eyes on Nikola and Marina. Angel seeks their union while Devil aims to keep them far apart and somewhere along the way they wager Nikola’s soul to boot.

Still, none of this rivalry keeps them from trading witty banter and playing electric guitar together. They’re the friendliest angel and devil since Aziraphale and Crowley in “Good Omens.”

The religious angle never prevents “We Are Not Angels,” from being what it wants to be: a lighthearted, quirky affair. The screwball comedy balances out the romantic sentiment, and for all the twists and turns Nikola and Marina’s relationship takes (more than your average rom-com, with a couple of real surprises), its conclusion serves the message you expect: “true love conquers all.” Far from trying to disguise its conventionality, “We Are Not Angels,” becomes an urban fairy tale by bringing its tropes and archetypes to the forefront.

Which isn’t to say the film is all expectation and no surprise. Writer and director Srdan Dragojevic populates his movie with a colorful, lively cast.

Kojo is as dynamic as his namesake character, skillfully walking the tightrope between suave and apathetic. Pavlovic might have the more two-dimensional role, but she makes Marina sweet and earnest, a high school success story just as eager to succeed in child rearing.

Along the way we meet Nikola’s ragtag group of friends, the disgruntled, cigarette-hiding husband Milan (Miki Manojlovic) and his white-collar buddy Djura (Zoran Cvijanovic), who’s always surprised by the time on his watch.

We become familiar with “Buba,” much better at compiling a book of Belgrade’s biggest playboys than styling hair at beauty school, as determined as Marina to make her a successful mother. Even the other women in Nikola’s life appear, including his fashionista landlady and a clingy past fling.

And of course we can’t forget Angel and Devil. There’s a reason they’ve essentially become media mascots in Serbia. They’re a vibrant comedy duo that spices up most their scenes, occasionally hogging the spotlight but often leaving room for the more relatable human characters.

Todorovic especially kills as the Devil, copping Gene Simmon’s flickering tongue to round off his wheezy, vice-loving character. Like Jack Sparrow in the original “Pirates” and Genie in “Aladdin,” Angel and Devil are the wacky loose cannons that make “We Are Not Angels,” unique without sinking it under their screen presence.

The film is available on DVD with English captions. It’s a sufficient though unimaginative translation, conveying the gist of the story while losing the nuances of Serbian slang and culture.

Fortunately, “We Are Not Angels,” obeys the central tenet of cinematic storytelling: keep it visual throughout, and it’s the film’s most visual scenes — the flashback to Nikola and Marina’s first meeting, Nikola’s frequent lapses into surreal dream sequences — that bring it to life.

Consider adding “We Are Not Angels,” to your Valentine’s Day film marathon for a truly offbeat heartwarmer.

Ivan Keta
Ivan Keta is a weekly film columnist for The Knox Student. In 2013, he won first place in Critical Film Review from the Illinois College Press Association, competing in the open division against dozens of other Illinois college newspapers.

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