Montenegrin-Croatian director Veljko Bulajic was primarily known for Yugoslav productions that mixed political, fact-based subject matter with international actors, such as BATTLE OF NEVETRA (with Yul Brynner and Franco Nero), but took a far more fantastical route with this obscure slice of local history. The results are astounding. It's centered around Scepan Mali, or Stephen the Little, who ruled Montenegro as its Tsar from 1767 to 1773 and convinced everyone that he was actually Russia's not-so-deceased Peter the Third. Even today, no one knows who this guy really was. But Bulajic and his scriptwriters have transformed this historical footnote into a compelling fable peppered with mind-blowing imagery that includes Satan and his underworld realm... In 18th century St. Petersburg, Emperor Peter III is assassinated at the behest of Catherine the Great and the Church. Meanwhile, deep in the bowels of Hell, a horned Satan presides over ugly, pointy-eared minions in powdered wigs, wolfman guards wearing ancient armor and naked, caged, screaming sinners. Peeved about Peter's murder, Satan hatches a plan to send one of his agents up to Montenegro, so that he can take over the area and continue waging Hell's longstanding war on religion. Underworld denizen Farfa (Zvonimir Crnko), the spitting image of Peter, lands this gig and once on the surface, poses as a wandering refugee, uses demonic powers to attract followers, angers the ruling Bishops, and even convinces Peter III's loyal old Captain (Vladimir Popovic) to join him. But problems with this assignment soon arise. You see, reluctant Farfa isn't the most inherently evil guy, and while he dutifully follows Satan's orders and amasses gullible supporters, he also begins to legitimately care about the suffering of the poor and downtrodden, falls for comely peasant girl Elfa (Tanja Boskovic) and must eventually choose between obedience to Satan or the love and loyalty of the good-hearted Montenegrin people. Making matters even worse, he's besieged by Russian Cossacks and Turkish invaders... The very first thing that'll impress you about this project is its gorgeously designed vision of Hell, with Bulajic continually returning to Satan and his circle of demonic sycophants, complete with an elevator to the surface that's manually operated by black priests pushing a donkey wheel, a nude nun getting whipped and screwed while atop a huge rocking-horse-style contraption, as well as Farfa's original schoolteacher job -- lecturing to a classroom of cute, tiny-horned children about God's asshole behavior. But what gives the film deeper resonance is its view of self-serving organized religion and corrupt government leaders. Bulajic doesn't have anything good to say about either, as they both plot to destroy Farfa due to his populist desire to help the impoverished proletariat, which puts their own power and wealth at risk. In fact, the Church is arguably worse than Satan, since at least the devil doesn't waste time bullshitting about his faux benevolence. Though a bit rough at times in regards to performances and plotting, it's a strange, surreal and thought-provoking gem.
© 2019 by Steven Puchalski.