For over four decades, Josip Broz Tito shaped the Yugoslav communist state under his tight-fisted rule, as well as sowed the seeds for its eventual bloodstained collapse. Tito first embraced Bolshevism during the Russian Revolution of 1917, and upon returning to his native Croatia, he became an illegal Communist Party organizer, which landed him a six-year prison term. Despite his run-in with Yugoslav authorities, Tito persisted and became Secretary General of the Yugoslav Communist Party by 1937, adopting the moniker of 'Tito' as an alias.
However, his grip on power truly tightened, with the outbreak of hostilities of the Second World War, when he formed an all-Yugoslav Partisan force to counter Nazi Germany and its Fascist Croatian puppet government. As a result of the war and his reputation as a resistance leader, Tito was able to establish a provisional Communist-led government, whose control over Yugoslavia was cemented by support from the Allies. Despite demands by the Serbian people to restore the pre-war monarchy, Tito created a dictatorship, giving himself sole discretion over the country's affairs.
In the years immediately following the end of the war, many of Tito's policies drew harsh criticism from Joseph Stalin, and eventually Yugoslavia was expelled from the Cominform and threatened with Soviet invasion. At the urging of the United States, which was itself at the beginning of a Cold War with the USSR, Tito declared independence for Yugoslavia, laying the foundation for the Nonaligned Movement. Rejecting the centralized structure of traditional Communist governments, Tito pursued a number of reforms, including workers' self-management, liberal economic reforms, and decentralization of power.
To soothe the mutual antagonism between the Croatian and Serbian peoples, Tito married Jovanka Budisavljevic, a Serbian Partisan aide, in 1952, in a symbolic gesture. In addition, his government rigorously stamped out nationalist tendencies throughout the Yugoslav state. Unfortunately, Tito's other policies, particularly decentralization of the party and power, set the stage for the separatist and nationalist movements that would ultimately unravel the country in the years following his death in 1980. As a result, the man who was once feared while he ruled Yugoslavia with an iron fist became nostalgically revered in the face of the Balkan unrest.
"Mar?al (The Ghost of Marshal Tito)" is a satirical farce from 1999 that conjectures the effect of a return appearance by the former dictator. A critical and major box office success in its native Croatia, "Mar?al" sets its sights on both the old hard-line Communists and the new breed of entrepreneur that has sprouted up with the fall of Communism. And though the resonance of the satire will be stronger for those with at least a broad understanding of Yugoslav history and politics, the Coen brothers-style humor can still be enjoyed by those not 'in the know'.
The story opens on a small island in Croatia. Despite the fall of the old Yugoslav state and the independence of Croatia, a number of old-timers staunchly hold fast to their Marxist ideals. During the funeral of one such 'old guard', a ceremony draped with the traditional red flags and party songs, the spirit of Marshal Tito is spotted briefly. Word of this miraculous sighting quickly reaches the mainland, and police officer Stipan Macula (Drazen Kuhn) is sent back to his hometown to investigate.
Sightings continue to pour in, which attract the party faithful from all over Croatia, who become the island's first tourists in five years. Sensing an opportunity to make some money, Luka, the town's mayor (Ivo Gregurevic) who is also an unabashed capitalist, rallies the townsfolk in creating a Marxist 'Disneyland', replete with daily parades, rallies, and sing-a-longs. The ultimate objective is to turn the island into a destination for all sorts of curiosity seekers, not only Tito followers, but also the party faithful of other nations, such as Chinese in search of the spirit of Mao Tse-tung ("Think globally, act locally" Luka declares while elaborating on his strategy).
Unfortunately, a local hard-line Communist curmudgeon named Marinko Cicin (Ilja Ivezic), sees the Tito sightings as an opportunity to restore the glory of the old Yugoslav state while deposing the town of the capitalist 'poison' of Luka and his followers. As a result, Stipan quickly finds himself in the middle of a brewing civil war, while trying to figure out whether or not the ghost of Marshal Tito is haunting the island, and if it is somehow connected to the mysterious comings-and-goings of a beautiful schoolteacher (Linda Begonia).
It's rather obvious that the island setting is a microcosm of both the 'new' Croatia, as well as the former Yugoslavia, and the effect of Tito's presence, which may or may not be real, is rather insightful in light of recent history in the Balkans. But in addition to the political commentary, director Vinko Bresan also has some fun with the audience by throwing his protagonist into a series of increasingly absurd situations and run-ins with a number of comic caricatures, including his dim-witted and stoner sidekicks. And in a testament to the global popularity of "The X-Files", Stipan also receives assistance from a couple sent by the 'Bureau of National Security' to investigate the paranormal phenomenon. Their names? Agents Lijan Mulderic (Boris Svrtan) and Danica Skulic (Ksenija Pajic)!
The only problem with "Mar?al" is that it might be a tad difficult to track down a screening of it, unless you live in Europe (where the film is available on video), your city has a Croatian cultural event (which is how I managed to catch it), or it shows up on the program at a local film festival. However, if it does show up in your neck of the woods, you'll certainly be rewarded for making the effort to catch this entertaining yet provocative farce.