What if Maid Marian, while held captive, decided to have sex with Prince John? What if Penelope decided to sleep with one of her suitors in The Odyssey
? You might have a situation not dissimilar to the one depicted in 1981's Banovic Stahinja
, remarkable not only for its subversion of the familiar pattern and traditional views of men and women but also for the fact that the film apparently hews rather close to the mediaeval epic upon which it's based.
This Yugoslavian film stars Italian actor Franco Nero as Strahinja Banovic, a hero who as we join him at the opening of the film seems to have already led quite a successful life of adventure. The opening credits give us this badass, rather metal depiction of him:
Just out killing dragons with his naked woman and his falcon. One could easily imagine him swapped out for Stephen Colbert.
He's settled down in a small castle with his beautiful young wife. Not beautiful, actually--intensely
pretty better describes actress Sanja Venjnovic who plays Andja.
One day Strahinja goes hunting and while he's away the castle is attacked by Muslim Turks. Strahinja gets word of the attack but has wandered so far that the Turks have ample time to rape all the women and kill all the men because one of the Turks, Abdulah (Rade Serbedzija), had been secretly living in the castle disguised as a servant and lets the attack force in. The leader of the Turks, Jug Bogdan (Gert Frobe), who is also Abdulah's brother, stops short of raping Andja. He cuts her clothes off and she looks down her nose at him and calls him a slave.
Everyone's gone by the time Strahinja returns. He vows revenge and vows to get his wife back despite the fact that her wealthy parents have given her up for lost. Not because she might be dead but because she's likely been raped and therefore not worth the trouble. Andja's mother is firm in this belief despite the fact that her own eyes had been put out as punishment for having been raped when she was younger.
But despite being held captive in Jug's tent, he hasn't raped her. Like many fantasy villains he actually wants to woo her. When she does consent to sleeping with him, though, it looks a bit more like Stockholm syndrome. I really liked the way the story treats this part. The archetypes really collapse under a pile of ambiguity--Strahinja is humiliated in an ambush where he's left alive and Andja's feelings for Jug change based on the logic of a different reality created by the situation. Jug is forced to execute someone close to him and she's drawn to the torment he feels, the fact that she's seeing one enemy kill another seeming less relevant in the absence of the genuine hero.
Strahinja, in a rather potent bit of symbolism, trades the crucifix he wears around his neck for a force of enslaved criminals. It's with these he stages a successful attack on Jug's camp only to find that Andja is now openly declaring her loyalty to Jug.
The final act of the film has wonderful shades of ambiguity about who deserves to be punished, who deserves to be forgiven, who deserves love. There's a marvellous uncertainty to the ending.