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Film Analysis of Srdjan Karanović΄s Petria’s Wreath
© Nevena Dakovic
First Publication: The Cinema of the Balkans Dina Iordanova (ed.) London: Wallflower Press 2006 pp. 161-171
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Petrijin Venac/Petria’s Wreath
Srdjan Karanović, Yugoslavia, 1980
The story of Petria’s Wreath takes place in a small mining town in Serbia called Okno (Shaft). The events span over three decades – before, during and after World War II – from 1937 to 1967. The tragic life of the illiterate peasant woman Petria (Mirjana Karanović) is structured as a triptych, with every part marked by a new man she loves. 

The story begins with Petria’s marriage to Dobrivoje, an unhappy reunion ruined by the brutality of the husband and the hostility of the mother-in-law, Vela Bugarka. Routinely abused and neglected, Petria’s first pregnancy ends with the death of her son at birth. Later, she gives birth to a girl, Milana, who survives only a few years before succumbing to meningitis, near the end of World War II. The marriage falls apart and Petria is compelled to leave the family home. 

Ljubiša, a kafana owner, gives Petria a job waiting tables, rescuing her from the despair and thus prompting her gradual emancipation. But soon the kafana is nationalised and Ljubiša leaves the town; Petria accepts the marriage proposal of Misa, a local miner. She begins a new life under socialism but her happiness does not last long. Misa’s drinking becomes excessive; he survives a mining accident but is now handicapped and suffers severe psychological pain. He dies a few years later and Petria is once again left alone.

In the 1960s, the mine is shut and the railroad closes down the train service to the town. Yet Petria’s lonely life goes on. She finds comfort in the visits of the ghosts of her loved ones, Milana and Misa. She knows that one day Misa will call her to join him, but she is in no hurry as she feels life is still worth living. 

Srdjan Karanović, the director of Petrijin venac (Petria΄s Wreath, 1980) belongs to the so-called (Yugoslav) Prague Group. The term refers to a group of ex-Yugoslav directors (Goran Marković, Goran Paskaljević, Srdjan Karanović, Lordan Zafranović, Rajko Grlić)  and cameramen (Živko Zalar, Predrag Popović)  who graduated from the famous FAMU (Prague Film School) in the late sixties. This was the first generation of formally educated and cine-literate directors in Yugoslavia to come out of the same film school. The members of the Prague Group deny it’s existence, arguing that it is an artificial moniker invented by film historians and critics as a matter of convenience. Director Goran Marković, for example, has claimed that these film-makers are connected mostly by friendship, by the memories of their youth and studies, while the extensively discussed influences of the Czech new wave are, in fact, sporadic and barely recognisable. According to Karanović, the work of each member of the Prague Group should be analysed as a separate entity: ‘For a long time now we do not belong to the same ‘compartment’ [...] we all deserve separate ones’. 

Occupation in 26 Scene by Lordan Zafranovic

And indeed, the work of the Prague Group directors is marked by diversity and richness rather than by shared stylistic or thematic features or generic preferences. There are significant stylistic differences in the auteurist-type film-making of its members. Throughout his oeuvre, Goran Marković explores various genres, from the teen social drama (Specijalno vaspitanje [Special Education], 1977) to adventure stories (Sabirni centar [Meeting Point], 1988). Goran Paskaljević, probably the director with the best commercial instinct, plays upon melodrama and knows how to develop images of helpless marginals in order to earn the audience’s sympathy and emotional response, as seen in his Pas koji je voleo vozove (The Dog Who Loved Trains, 1977), of children or old people, as seen in Tuđa Amerika (Someone Else΄s America, 1995) and Tango Argentino (1992). Lordan Zafranović has used cinema to re-articulate Yugoslavia’s World War II history, most notably in his excellent epic Okupacija u 26 slika (Occupation in 26 Scenes, 1978). Rajko Grlić passes a whole range of sophisticated love stories intertwined with urban, generational or class conflicts with poise and elegance; he is best known for Samo jednom se ljubi (That Melody Haunts My Reverie, 1981), U raljama života (In the Jaws of Life, 1984), and Za sreću je potrebno troje (Three for Happiness, 1986). Despite the stylistic differences, however, the grouping of these directors (facilitated by the fact that they have often collaborated) has proved to be a useful analytical tool that facilitates analysis of their work. 

Karanović, the director of Petria’s Wreath, explains that within his work one can distinguish three tendencies.

‘The first one is ‘experimental.’ These are films that offer space to amateur actors to allow them gain a reputation, films where improvisation allows different versions of popular culture to become the prevalent element of fiction (Drustvena igra/Society Game, 1972; Pogledaj me, nevernice/Faithless Woman Look at Me, 1974; and Miris poljskog cveća/The Scent of Wild Flowers, 1977). [...] The second tendency is represented by films preoccupied with characters from the director΄s generation, where the plot is located in a middle-class environment (Nešto izmedju/Something In-between, 1983; a section of Za sada bez dobrog naslova/Film with No Name, 1988). Here, the middle-class setting usually determines both the psychology of the characters as well as their morality: it imposes values and lifestyles, and determines relationships. The third tendency involves films that are, foremost, of ‘ethnological interest.’ These are based on myths and stories of the past, which include sufficient material to fuel the telling of a story. Films like Virdžina (Virgina, 1991) and Petria’s Wreath [...]. In these films, it is popular tradition, manners and customs that determine the framework, and it is their dynamics that create the necessary conflicts in the plot.’ 

In the 1990s, finding it painful to cope with the break up of ex-Yugoslavia, most of the FAMU graduates went abroad. But their lives continued to follow the same generational pattern. Marković stayed as professor at FDU (faculty of Drama Arts in Belgrade); Grlić and Karanović taught at American Universities; Zafranović returned to Prague. Paskaljević continued his career with feature fiction films in France, while others turned to documentaries, making compelling testimonies about politics and art. After spending a period abroad, in 1998 Karanović resumed his Belgrade University career. Since 1999, Grlić has divided his time between Ohio and Zagreb, Paskaljević has commuted between Paris and Belgrade, while Zafranović returned for a large retrospective organised in 2002 by the Belgrade΄s Film Archive, and stayed on to work on new projects. After more than a ten-year break, Marković and Karanović made feature films – Kordon (Cordon, 2002) and Sjaj u očima (Loving Glances, 2003) – ensuring not only the continuity of their careers but also the continuity of the Prague Group.

Petria’s Wreath was adapted from the 1975 novel of Dragoslav Mihajlović, a Yugoslav writer of cult standing. Survivor of Goli Otok, the Stalinist working camp for political prisoners set up after Tito’s break with Stalin in 1948, Mihajlović had been one of the first writers to reveal the hard truth about communist-era repressions.  A 1969 theatrical adaptation of his novel When the Pumpkins Blossomed (1968), directed by Boro Draškoviċ, had been banned soon after the opening night after, Tito critically alluded to it in one of his speeches. A member of SANU (The Serbian Academy of Science and Art), Mihajlović enjoyed the aura of politically engaged and quasi-dissident author.

Literary historian Jovan Deretić considers Mihajlović among the ‘novostiliste’ (‘new stylists’) whose work is characterised by the rejection of all things artificial or construed. For these writers it is not enough to simply offer a realistic reflection of modern life and its rough aspects; rather they seek to recreate it in vivid speech, which sounds emphatically different from the normative literary language. The critic, ????? Petković has commented that ‘The themes and language of everyday life are put together, so that narration in the first person can be equally done in jargon or in a dialect’. Mihajlović used both options to build symbolic and lyrical meanings as well as to ‘transform the low and the vulgar’ into moving poetic symbols. Published in 1975, the novel Petria’s Wreath received the newly established Andrić Prize (named after the Nobel Prize winner Ivo Andrić). As well as being adapted for the screen, it was later made into a four part TV mini-series, and adapted for the theatre. The film was awarded the Golden Arena and screened as part of the Special Retrospective of the best films of Pula΄s Festival for its 50th anniversary in 2003.

Chronologically, Petria’s Wreath occupies mid position in Karanović΄s oeuvre and is pivotal in both connecting and opposing the rest of the Prague Group’s generational oeuvre. Karanović transfers the urban periphery heroes from the films of Grlić or Marković to the Serbian rural landscape. Whereas Marković uses popular beliefs about life after death and structures the plot of his Meeting Point (based on Dušan Kovačević’s play) around the fact that the living are not allowed to know that they will go on living before they have actually died, Karanović’s simple protagonists are immune to intellectual scepticism; their firm belief in life after death determines most of their actions. 

The Meeting Point by Goran Markovic

In the context of the predominantly macho Yugoslav cinema, Karanović stands out as a director adept at representing women – be they ordinary or heroic – on the screen.  In the wedding scenes, in the kafana, in the hospital or at the railway station Karanović continues to use ‘naturschiks’. This allows him to concentrate on the exploration of Balkan borderline identities, tracing the rural-urban migration. He would return to this with Something In-between, which would explore the relations between Balkanism and Europeanism or like the way in which Film with No Name would deal with the multiethnic society or Virgina would question gender identity. Most obviously Petria’s Wreath is of the same ‘blood type’ as Virgina, as it explored the same theoretical (ethnological and anthropological) and generic (melodrama, women’s film) foundations.

The ethnographic background here is provided by the vlaško surrounding. The Vlasi are an ethnic minority inhabiting the North East parts of Serbia and speaking a Romance language that is believed to be close to Latin. They live near the Bulgarian and Romanian borders and are known for magical talents that take on a certain primitive and atavistic sensibility, as well as for a supernatural heritage that finds expression in various superstitious beliefs, healing practices and fortune telling rituals. As with Emir Kusturica΄s Dom za vešanje (Time of the Gypsies, 1989), the old women of this group are respected and simultaneously feared as they are seen as shamans or soothsayers. One of these women, Vlajna Ana (Olivera Marković), a secondary figure who is nonetheless present in all key moments of the film, provides help or comfort to Petria. She recommends stoical endurance: ‘You just be ready, [...] you just wait and hope.’ The second uncanny character is Vela Bugarka. Swathed in black, she silently tiptoes around and lurks behind windows. She is like a black cat or an evil witch, casting her spells over the dowerless bride (and causing the death of her newborn baby boy). In this animal-like life, which is simultaneously full of mysticism and rituals, a woman’s existence is two-dimensional – there is the domineering witch and there is the mother giving life. The world’s order is matriarchate; thus the film’s genre can be described as matriarchal melodrama. Petria’s greatest tragedy, accordingly, is in her inability to bear or keep a child.

In the second part, Petria resorts on a trajectory of emancipation. She confirms her definitive break with the obedient existence of silent patriarchal wife by changing her appearance. She dresses in a quasi-urban way and, more importantly, she drops the scarf and uncovers her hair, then cuts it short and puts a perm on. It is this change in appearance (and, effectively, iconography) that marks her ‘liberation;’ the changed hairstyle represents an awakening of a new sexuality, which is played out in the relationship with Ljubiša. As the story develops, it is easy to mistake Petria’s habitual stoicism for regained passivity. She is again married and again obeying a husband, yet she is now able to talk back and persevere even if she gets slapped in the face. But it does not mean she accepts it thoughtlessly: she can never be truly submissive again; she expects to be rewarded for her suffering. 

The multiple framing and the flexible positioning of the gaze neatly structure the sociological reading of the patriarch-matriarch binary. In the beginning, Petria is framed as a woman in waiting, often shown as standing behind or beside the window. She does not dare to look through the window or to explore openly her reflection in the mirror; she turns back the photos and pulls down the curtains and remains a passive object in the camera’s gaze. Later on, after she has grown into an active heroine, she is transformed into a brave subject that leads the camera. She looks in the mirror to check out her new look; she follows Ljubiša΄s advice and no longer avoids eye contact with men; at the end of the film she will even directly address the camera, thus triumphing by daringly returning the gaze. 

The changing gender dominance is also underlined by the narration. The narrator is a woman who tells the story through voice-over or direct to camera. Quite systematically that voice-over is provided by a real ‘Petria,’ amateur, Darinka Živković, who also appears on screen several times – most notably bookending the film. (The actual woman who served as prototype for the novel was called Milica Stevanović; she died at the age of eighty.) With her wise and calm voice, she ensures the transition between the present and the narrated flashbacks remain smooth.

The young Petria was played by Mirjana Karanović, in her screen debut. At the time she was only in the second year of her studies, yet for the role of Petria she received the two highest national cinematic awards (at the festivals in Pula and Niš). Petria’s role, a woman with a weather-beaten face and a strong east Serbian accent revealed Karanović’s talent in full scope and established the image of the common-sensical, long-suffering wife and mother that the actress would develop later in two of Kusturica’s films – Otac na službenom putu (When Father was away on Business, 1985) and Underground (1995). Even today, after a rich cinematic and theatrical career that took her all over ex-Yugoslavia, Mirjana Karanović considers Živojin Pavlović, Emir Kusturica and Srdjan Karanović as the directors she most enjoyed to work with.  

When Father Was Away on Business by Emir Kusturica

Unlike the films of Grlić or Zafranović, history and social circumstances remain of secondary importance in the context of this film. Although Karanović draws continuous parallels between the ups and downs in Petria’s life and the corresponding social and political developments, the latter are little more than a vivid backdrop for Petria’s story. In the 1940s, there are momentary glimpses of German patrols, partisans and youth brigades, as well as scenes of preparations for a Labour Day Parade. Railway tracks or smoking train chimneys, similar to the classical Westerns, gradually punctuate the idyllic village landscapes, signalling industrialisation and urbanisation. The closure of the railroad line is marked by the removal of the tracks, symbolically cutting-off the life-line to the village, after which the village is left behind, abandoned by the city that has attracted the rural population who have rejected the traditional lifestyle. Society has neglected the old villages and mining towns, which are now left without their vital lifeline. By 1967, Okno is a half deserted ghost town, similar to the Welsh mining village seen in John Ford΄s How Green Was My Valley (1941), although Petria’s story does not contain the same level of sentimental and nostalgic overtones relying instead on a more on hard-hitting, murky realism. The time of the historical background is linear, progressively changing as witnessed by the people who are not sure if the manifestations of Destiny are truthful clues or only deceptive appearances. The time in the foreground, focusing on Petria and her suffering, is the mythical circular time of a Fate foretold. It is something that is felt, believed in and accepted yet remains invisible. The turning points in life occur when the ‘spear’ of reality time pierces the mythical circle of this invisible other dimension. Petria accepts everything as repetitive tragedies and evil, ‘as something not only inevitable but also normal, accepting the world as the stage’ (Kalafatović). She is a typical Karanović character, besieged by Destiny and split between a melodramatic and a tragic world.

One of the more frequent themes in Karanović΄s films is usually made up of a meta-cinematic essay containing dedications to film history, as seen in Something In-between; reflections upon the relationship between reality and illusion, as seen in The Scent of Wild Flowers or upon issues of media manipulation (Film with No Name). In Petria’s Wreath, the reflective mode is inscribed through formal design and the densely interwoven ethnographical and anthropological elements of the narrative. The film’s opening and end as well as its ‘chapter headings’ are marked by the insertion of still photographs of the main characters. The credits roll over a sequence that shows these same photographs being manipulated in various ways – coloured, rearranged and put together in a collage – opening with a photograph of Petria and in closing with an image of all the protagonists. Each chapter opens with the photo of the man who will become the main presence in Petria’s life and closes with Petria leaving with his photo. When her first husband, Dragiša, chases her away, she takes their wedding photograph with her; when leaving Ljubiša she hides his photo in a mirror she takes with her; when things with Misa take a bad turn she asks the photographer to ‘make’ a new photograph of them – instead of the real wedding one – by photo montage. All photos are taken by The Photographer (in the Serbian original he is called The Image-maker) who retouches this record of reality by embellishing and enriching the details. Petria explains that the embellished photos allow us to remember the past as something that was better and more beautiful, thus imitating the (noble) manipulation with remembrance everyone unconsciously performs.  Her simple ways rearticulate Andre Bazin’s 1958 thesis about photography as a means to overcome the ephemerality of life and support a lasting memory that obliterates death.  The presence of the photographs – carried in the pocket by the heart or hanged on the wall and thus securing the permanent presence of loved ones – further exemplifies Edgar Morin΄s claim that photography catches our souls and preserves them.

The Photographer also handles the job with mirrors, linked with a whole range of small rituals and attitudes, which are equally present in the beliefs of the Vlasi and in Morin’s film anthropology. When someone dies women cover the mirrors in the house; Misa and Petrija get a mirror as a wedding gift. Because the reflection is understood as a spiritual double of the body through which one could influence the ‘original,’ The Photographer cuts the mirror in half so that Misa would not have to look at the reflection of his crippled leg. Thus The Photographer functions as a male counterpart to Vlajna Ana or as a metaphorical demiurge, his status equated to the position of the film’s authors.

The ‘frame within the frame’ structure creates a web of glances that come together in two of the film’s key scenes. The first one is at the market place, where, some time after their separation, Dragiša approaches Petria and attempts to flatter her. But Dragiša΄s new wife arrives, baby in arms, and cuts short the conversation. Misa, who wants to pay for the smashing of kafana, comes to Ljubiša, who observes all these developments from a distance. Vlajna Ana silently stops by Petria and a group of singing partisans with the red flag fills background. The scene brings together all the men that have a defining part in Petria’s life – in the past, the present and the future – and spatially defines her relation to all three of them. Dragiša symbolises bad times; his relationship with Petria is regularly cut off by the interference of other women (initially his mother, now his new fertile wife). Ljubiša is Petria’s silent protector; Misa appears causally passing by, as somebody who does not play a role yet but who will soon figure powerfully in her life. The scene is further enriched by the double framing, provided the partisans with flags (reference to history) and the photographer (reference to record).

The second one is the scene of the demolition of the kafana, passively observed by Petria standing in the back; a crowd of villagers gathering and going away in front of the window and The Photographer taking pictures. Amidst the chaos they leave behind, Ljubiša sits down and invites Petria to join him for a drink as a companion; his equal.  

Both scenes rely on an intricate mise-en-scéne, which shows characters standing on the crossroads of life; their circumstances are complex, they both look at others and are simultaneously being looked at. Their ambiguous, almost ‘schismatic’ position mimics the film’s retelling of one’s own life from a distance, looking and participating at the same time. ‘My life and me went into different directions; my life went that way and I ended up this way. And somehow it is that this so-called life of mine passes somewhere over there, beside me,’ says Ljubiša implicitly defining the situation. 

Petria’s Wreath΄s final scene

Petria’s Wreath could be read as a peculiar counterpart to Karanović’s earlier Grlom u jagode (Unpicked Strawberries, 1975), a juxtaposition where Petria’s Wreath and this made-for-TV film are put side by side as rural versus urban generational chronicles. The characters in both texts are ‘caged in’ by Destiny: sometimes visibly (as the metaphorical disguise of Vlajna Ana, for example) and sometimes invisibly yet fatally known and nearly palpable, imposing its constant presence to a degree that is nearly stereotypical. The stories tell of a process of discovering one’s true identity and of journeying through life. Unpicked Strawberries remains one of the best Yugoslav TV series of all times, it is often replayed on TV and keeps charming new generations of Belgrade teenagers; in 1985 it was followed up by an equally successful feature sequel, Jagode u grlu (A Throatful of Strawberries). In time, the protagonists of Strawberries finally grew up and fulfilled the demanding expectation of entering –although quite reluctantly - the world of the responsible adults. Their hopes to become like the rest of the normal (slightly grey) world were presented as predictable and moderately optimistic, be it with a touch of resignation.

Karanović΄s most recent film Sjaj u očima (Loving Glances, 2003) could be seen as a variation of the Strawberries theme, imbued with the same sentimental optimism. The story is a love triangle set among a group of refugees in Belgrade in the late 1990s. A cross between Strawberries and Petria, the film’s protagonists, Labud and Romana, posses the same stoicism and soft humorous resignation as Petria. They also talk with ghosts from the past who – unlike Petria΄s ghosts – keep them apart. This talk evokes an identity conflict between the urban identity of the young refugees and the traditional nationalism of their peasant ancestors, translating into the more general oppositions of rural-urban and old-young, all themes explored throughout Karanović΄s work. 

Loving Glances can be seen as a nostalgic look back to the traditional Yugoslav cinema, which restores the continuity of the Prague Group but does not reach the heights of its early achievements. These yearning glances could be seen as a contemporary version of Petria’s almost brutal lust for life in spite of everything, as expressed in the gloomy motto of the film: ‘Man is good for nothing. He likes to live like the oblivious, stupid animal.’


40th Thessaloniki IFF/karanovic Accessed: 23 June 2003.

Bazin, A. (1989) What is cinema? Berkeley: University of California Press.

Kalafatović, B. (1985) ‘Venac stradnja i patnje’, in Kalafatović, B. (ed.) Znaci sa ekrana. Beograd: Institut za film.

Karanović, S. (1998) Dnevnik jednog filma: Virdžina 1981-1991. Beograd: FDU/Institut za pozorište, film, radio i televiziju.

Marković, G.  (1990) Češka škola ne postoji. Beograd: Prosveta.

Mihailovic, Dragoslav, When Pumpkins Blossomed (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1971).

Morin, E.  (1958) Le cinema ou l’homme imaginaire: essai d’anthropologies. Paris: Editions de Minuit.

Petković, N. (1997) ‘Twentieth century literature’ chapter from the book The History of Serbian Culture.

Zečević, B. (1993). Čitanje svetla. Beograd: YU Film Danas/GP Prosveta/ Prometej.
  When Father Was Away on Business
  Time of the Gypsies
  The Dog Who Loved Trains
  Someone Else`s America
  Tango Argentino
  Occupation in 26 Pictures
  The Cordon
  The Meeting Point
  Petria's Wreath
  Mirjana Karanovic
  Emir Kusturica
  Dusan Kovacevic
  Rajko Grlic
  Goran Markovic
  Zivko Zalar
  Srdjan Karanovic
  Goran Paskaljevic
  Zivojin Pavlovic
  Predrag Popovic
  Lordan Zafranovic
  Olivera Markovic
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