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To buff a polarizing Balkan leader’s image, Croatian filmmaker calls in Spacey for the role

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ZAGREB, Croatia – A hagiographic movie about the stiff former leader of a small Balkan country was never going to be a global box-office hit. But its director, a former water polo champion turned darling of right-wing Croatian cinema, found a novel way to generate some buzz: He cast Kevin Spacey as its star.

While Hollywood has generally turned its back on Spacey because of sexual assault accusations against him, purging the 63-year-old from its roster of bankable talent and deleting him from productions already in the works, a new cinematic tribute to a nationalist leader some view as a dangerous bigot puts the “House of Cards” star front and center.

The 90-minute film celebrates Croatia’s first president, the late Franjo Tudjman, a leader revered by fans as a Balkan George Washington but reviled by foes as an ethnonationalist zealot. The movie, “Once Upon a Time in Croatia,” goes into general release in Croatia in February and will be screened in other countries, including the United States. The director, Jakov Sedlar, 70, conceded in an interview that in Croatia, many people, particularly the young, do not care much about Tudjman, a highly divisive authoritarian figure whom historian Tony Judt described as “one of the more egregiously unattractive” leaders to emerge in the early 1990s from the rubble of Yugoslavia, of which Croatia was formerly a part.

Warren Zimmerman, who was the U.S. ambassador to Yugoslavia as the multiethnic country unraveled, warned in a 1992 cable to Washington that Tudjman’s election as Croatia’s president in May 1990 had brought to power “a narrow-minded, crypto-racist regime” that, in tandem with Slobodan Milosevic of Serbia, was unleashing “nationalism, the Balkan killer.”

But having Spacey play Tudjman, the director said last week in Zagreb, the Croatian capital, “will definitely help” break through a wall of what is at best public indifference and at worst fierce hostility toward the man who led Croatia’s battle for independence.

“Ask people whether they have heard of Spacey or Tudjman, they will, of course, say Spacey,” he said. The American actor’s fame, no matter the risk of it curdling into infamy, and undisputed acting talent, Sedlar added, “will certainly attract people to see my film about Tudjman.”

The director declared that Tudjman, who died in 1999, “was not a nationalist, but a patriot, an absolutely positive personality.” And Spacey, a two-time Oscar winner and a friend of the director for more than a decade, “is the best of the best actors” and “absolutely innocent,” Sedlar said.

Both men, Sedlar says, have been unjustly maligned: Spacey by accusers like Anthony Rapp, a fellow actor whose battery claim against the disgraced star was thrown out in October by a New York civil court, and Tudjman by domestic political rivals and foreign critics angry over his role in the blood-soaked destruction of Yugoslavia.

One of seven states that emerged after the collapse of Yugoslavia, Croatia today is a stable democracy of fewer than 4 million people, a popular tourist destination and a global soccer power. But the struggle to shape the history of the Yugoslav wars, critical to national identity in each of the countries spawned by the violence of the early 1990s, still rages across the region, particularly among filmmakers in Croatia, Serbia and Bosnia, the nations that saw the worst of the fighting.

“The history of the war is a constant process of remembering and forgetting,” said Dejan Jovic, a professor at the University of Zagreb. Memory wars, he added, are especially active in cinema. Each side, Jovic said, “remembers only what it wants and forgets the rest.”

Sedlar’s new film makes little effort to give a full and balanced history. It avoids any mention of crimes committed under Tudjman’s leadership, like attacks on Bosnian civilians, the ethnic cleansing of Croatia’s once large Serb minority and the destruction of a 16th-century bridge in the Bosnian city of Mostar in 1993. It skips his outreach to extreme nationalists linked during World War II to the Ustashe, a fascist group whose brutality shocked even some German Nazis.

But, the director insisted: “This is not propaganda. It is just my view.”

He initially hoped to make a full-scale biopic to mark the centenary of the former Croatian president’s birth. But he settled for a more modest production built around Spacey reciting Tudjman’s stirring speeches.

The director said Spacey had taken the part out of friendship, and had neither asked for nor received any payment. Spacey’s lawyer, Jennifer L. Keller, did not respond to a request for comment.

Whether playing Tudjman will help Spacey in his quest for rehabilitation is another matter. It is not his first acting role since accusations against him surfaced in 2017 – he has appeared as a detective in an Italian feature and as a mysterious henchman in an American thriller – but his role as Tudjman is perhaps his riskiest.

Critics in Croatia have been divided along political lines in their reviews, though even hostile ones have praised Spacey’s performance.

One panned the film as “garbage” but described Spacey as “basically the best part of the movie,” adding, “He had a difficult task: to recite in English verbal sausages from Tudjman’s better-known speeches and give them a certain passion without any clear context.”

Source:Buffalo News

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