P.O.V. No.21 - (A)TORSION

Torsion, or staying calm in a panic

Mark Le Fanu

Literally tens of thousands of short films get made every year; the field is far more difficult to keep an overall eye on than is the comparable arena of feature films. Probably no single person alive really knows what the best shorts are at any given time: there are simply too many to keep up with. Even concentrating on the more prominent instances - films that end up on 35 mm for example: the 35 mm shorts strand of a major festival like Berlin is besieged every year with over 800 entries (out of which a mere thirty go forward to competition). Torsion, the eleven minute Slovenian-Serbian film under discussion in this article, in fact won the Golden Bear award for best short film at the 2003 Berlinale, so we may assume that the work has high quality. And so it turns out to be - if not the "very finest" short film of the year (for reasons hinted above, such a judgment is impossible to call) it is plainly one of the finest. How and why this is so is surely interesting to speculate about.

First, there is the story itself, a fantastical tale if ever there was one - or maybe not so far-fetched after all? We are in Sarajevo in 1994 in wintertime; a well-dressed party of adults is waiting for permission to enter a secret tunnel that will whisk them under enemy lines to the besieged city's airport, where a plane is waiting to transport them to a singing competition in faraway Paris. As they wait, a little impatiently, for the tunnel to unblock itself of returning travelers, a passing boy mischievously imitates the whistle of a mortar shell, causing the choir to dive to ground for cover. No sooner have they ruefully picked themselves up than a real barrage starts in the vicinity. Frightened by the exploding shells, Spotty the cow in a nearby barn goes into premature labour: and the farmer (who turns out to be the father of the mischievous boy) is anxious as hell to find a doctor or a vet to help him deliver the calf. Yes, it turns out, one of the members of the choir is a vet - though at this stage a reluctant one, who cannot help thinking of the plane standing waiting for his party on the runway.

How this ordinary-looking (yet heroic) fellow overcomes his scruples and sees through the birth of Spotty's offspring, forms the central set-piece of the movie, in a sequence of great physical inventiveness. The task to be performed in the stable is no easy matter, for in addition to the terrifying sounds of the nearby explosions (which could at any moment cause the creature to bolt or to expire) there is the problem, soon-discovered, that the calf is twisted - "torsioned" - in the mother's uterus, so that the animal needs to be completely turned over on its back to enable the birth to take place. Someone in the party has the clever idea of singing to the beast to calm it, and soon the entire choir, harmonies a little askew, finds itself rehearsing for tomorrow's concert; the anthem they have chosen (or that has chosen them: it has somehow emerged out of the air) is a solemn and sublime Agnus Dei from the Catholic liturgy, sung here in its requiem version.

The calf is born (we may reveal the happy ending); and the mother (in a last twist of the plot, involving wild dogs) recovers to suckle her. The incident, one might think, belongs essentially to the realm of allegory rather than to anything that might plausibly be imagined to have really happened. But is this so? The moral force of the film, and the source of its powerful originality, derives from a growing feeling on the viewer's part that such an event might, after all, have actually taken place. (If not this event exactly, then one pretty like it.) Perhaps the film is even autobiographical! The real truth of the matter, of course, may be ascertained easily enough by the simple device of interviewing the director (probably it has already been done elsewhere in this issue). Yet the viewer - this viewer anyway - doesn't really want to know. The ontological ambiguity of the events depicted is what is so fascinating. Certainly that fantastic tunnel to the airport did exist: we have just celebrated the 10th anniversary of its closure. And more generally, it is true that cultural life continued in Sarajevo under the most trying of conceivable circumstances. The whole siege of the city, grotesque and tragic in its daily horror, was at the same time an episode, or series of episodes (peculiarly "Balkan" episodes), in the history of Surrealism. Nothing the craziest author could conceivably invent could be more fantastic than what actually was put up with during those extraordinary 1790 days, and the film makes use of this somber thought beautifully.

Torsion, to repeat, is a mere eleven minutes long, but what a lot it manages to pack in and still leave room for the pauses. Two pauses, to be precise - two wonderful silences in the midst of the ongoing tumult - slow the film down, giving the audience space to breathe in and feel the full force of the events. Pause one: the choir has decided to sing to the cow as the vet and his assistants hoist her over on her back. The procedure is going well (if chaotically) when suddenly the animal gives a loud bellow and appears to give up the ghost. A powerful close-up registers its wide-open eyes flickering on the edge of extincttion. So it has all been in vain, this exertion? Or has it? A middle-aged woman (evidently one of the lead sopranos of the choir) takes a deep breath before embarking on a solo reprise of the anthem; and now for the first time we clearly hear the great Christian words articulated in all their incongruous pathos: "Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, dona eis requiem". "Lamb of God, who takest away the sins of the world, grant them [it] eternal peace." (Surrealism, surely, to address a cow as a lamb?) In due course the rest of the choir join in, and in no time at all the miracle happens. In front of our eyes (so important to see it) the calf is delivered from the uterus. Rubbed down with straw from the stable floor, the wriggling creature is vigorous and healthy.

Now comes the second pause (how daring that there are two!). If the calf is healthy, the mother seems well and truly "done for". Nothing the helpers can do can make her respond to her offspring. She lies on the ground, inert and comatose. All the excitement of the birth ceases, and in the ensuing emptiness there enters into the film a profound feeling of sadness, of time slowed down, of the weight of death. Only temporary of course - it is "just" a pause we are talking about. The vet finds his solution, the resourcefulness of which provides the "fun" of the last few minutes of the movie - a work whose key (in the musical sense) is indeed a kind of elegant optimism. Yet these two crucial silences (which may not have even been envisaged in the film's original scenario) are truly the moral centre of the film. They rescue it from farce - and from sentimentality. By their exquisite cadence, they structure the work, and give it its beautiful thoughtfulness.

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