F20 – A journey into madness

7.9.2020.

Original title: F20 | Year: 2018. | Running time: 90 minuta | Country of production: Hrvatska | Directed by: Arsen Anton Ostojić | Screenplay: Hrvoje Sadarić | Actors: Filip Mayer, Romina Tonković, Mladen Vulić, Lana Ujević, Alen Liverić | Production: Filmosaurus Rex, Gripfilm, Interfilm, CineCro, Embrio Productions |
F20 - Directed by: Arsen Anton Ostojić

F20 – Directed by: Arsen Anton Ostojić

Writing about genre is not simple. The term is neither easy to define, nor is it unambiguous. So in Croatian film theory, there are film types (Croatian ‘rod’, in literal translation, ‘gender’ or ‘genus’) and there are genres, although the latter is a loanword taken from French, from the word genre, which, again, signifies ‘type’ or ‘form’. Film types represent general, basic categories in cinema which assists us in discerning key differences between various films. In general, six types are usually delineated, namely fiction (narrative) films, documentaries, animated films, educational films, propaganda (promotional), and experimental cinema, whereas genre is, on the other hand, treated as a subcategory usually applied to fiction films.

The slope becomes even more slippery once we consider the critical reception of genres throughout history. It depends, naturally, on what used to be perceived as genre at a specific point in time, as well as who it was that critically evaluated its aesthetics. Therefore, to generalise is to reduce. Moreover, it would not be off the mark to say that certain social and intellectual circles, for example, deemed specific literature and film genres less important than other – or, possibly even, less valuable, especially if they were dismissed as trivial or lowbrow public-pleasing art, as opposed to the proclaimed highbrow art, which holds greater aesthetic value.

The situation becomes even more intricate in practice, since there is rarely a case of pure genre; films often incorporate an interplay of elements from more genres. Furthermore, when it comes to narrative art, be it in form of novels or feature films, how they connect these elements into a whole is essential for the interpretation. The motif of murder, for example, can set the plot in motion in an Agatha Christie detective novel (possibly all of them) as well as the socio-psychological world of, for example, Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment. However, while Agatha Christie’s novels stress the mystery element of the murder to be solved, Dostoevsky is more interested in the social, moral and spiritual implications of crime.

In the past few decades, and perhaps contrary to the general impression, there have been some genre films made in Croatia. And then some. Still, upon closer inspection, it becomes clear that these are mostly comedies and dramas, with input from other genres (like crime) in varying degrees, but even then the social or psychological aspects typical for drama are given prominence. If how the story is being told is also taken into account, i.e. the type of narrative focus, we can see that classical characterization, mainly by means of dialogue and verbal confrontation, is overrepresented. Characterization by means of action—which would more or less be a feature of hardcore genre filmmaking—is still extremely rare.

This caught the attention of Hrvoje Sadarić, an amateur screenwriter with a degree in political science who works as a clerk in the Croatian Parliament, when he decided to write the script for his film F20 about ten years ago. The same script that would catch director Arsen Anton Ostojić’s eye in one competition later on and who would make a film based on it many years later. In one interview, Sadarić notes that his intention was to create an interesting narrative that would step back from the socio-political context most Croatian films are drenched in. It would simply entertain the audience in a pure genre language. Roughly speaking, F20 might be classified as a psychological thriller. But is it a successful one, and is that what it really is or could it, in fact, be categorised as something else? All of these questions will be answered shortly.

The plot is quite simple: Martina (Romina Tonković) and Irena (Lana Ujević) are friends and students with plans to go to the fabled party haven Zrće on Pag for a couple of days. However, Martina’s father is strict (her mother died when she was but a child) and he does not approve of her intention. He demands that she spend her summer vacation helping him out at his pizzeria. In the meantime, Martina meets a mysterious young man Filip (Filip Mayer), a regular customer at Martina’s pizza place (“To tell you the truth, my friend, if it weren’t for him, we’d be ruined”, as Martina’s father Mate /Mladen Vulić/ tells his friend, Baja the policeman /Alen Liverić/). Martina delivers the pizzas because the delivery guy is on holiday. And as is usual in psychological thrillers, it turns out that Filip is not what it says on the tin, that is to say, a polite, kind and introverted boy. Or, maybe, that is something we have known from the very beginning?

Not sure where to start with this film, but what F20 does show, at any rate, is how hard it is to first write and then direct a, let’s say, psychological thriller. In F20, everything is turned on its head, with little possibility of it all being the author’s intention. The film begins at a party in Zrće with a text stating the diagnostic classification of schizophrenia, alongside its code as per the International Statistical Classification of Diseases (i.e. F 20). It does not take long, though, to figure out which character it refers to, hindering any possibility of suspense. Neither are there any thrilling elements present in this thriller; the film is directed in a way not much different than a typical drama. A number of exposition-laden flashbacks only visually slightly separated from the main storyline (sometimes, not even then) make the film difficult to follow and relate to in a way essential for thrillers.

Criminal acts are conspicuously absent from the film up until its second half; for the most of the time, it is not much more than a psychological-social drama about two young people (a girl who lost her mother and helps her father make ends meet, and an introverted, asocial boy). In other words, it is all that screenwriter Sadarić sought to avoid.

The scrip is, sadly, very badly executed. The genre codes are changed helter-skelter, somewhere between a youth film and a parody (hard to say if intentional), about two hypersexual girlfriends who twist gender expectations upside-down, until it devolves into a complete mess, with no possibility of a return to its thriller roots (as in, for example, Eli Roth’s Knock Knock, USA/Chile/Israel, 2015). Social and psychological elements are added to the mix, before it becomes a crime chase film, only to end as a thriller or, rather, horror. The problem here is that there is nothing natural about it; these transitions take place in an exceptionally clumsy manner, the characters change their behaviour by surprise, practically within the same frame, or they disappear from the film in ways most bizarre, as if lost by a careless parent in a shopping mall full of ideas.

And when everything is upside-down, it is difficult to talk about the direction or acting. Actually, F20 could be described, for the most part, as a trashy film. As film critic Nenad Polimac puts it, F20 “simplifies genre forms, disregards the standards of good taste (in film; added by the author), and gratifies itself with scenes of sex and violence”, and it represents “a journey into madness with no plan of escape to normalcy”. His words provide a convenient end to my review of a film whose title evokes schizophrenia, a condition that is not found in the film. Or, rather, not found in any of the characters.