The pull of memory is strong in "Hey Babu Riba," the new film from Yugoslav director Jovan Acin, but not strong enough. It's a perfectly acceptable, rather pleasant, not very distinctive movie experience -- one of those marginal films that charm you but don't leave much of an impression.
The movie, which is subtitled "Memories of Youth in Belgrade," is exactly that. It's about a group of teen-agers growing up in Yugoslavia in 1953. Though there are five of them -- four boys and a girl -- they call themselves "the Foursome," possibly because they row together, with their girlfriend, Miriana (Gala Videnovic), as their coxswain.
But Miriana is much more than that. A tawny, unconsciously provocative girl with sea-green eyes, Miriana is the group's center of gravity and its talisman; the boys' feelings about her -- which cue their feelings about women in general -- is their strongest bond. In a sense Miriana, whom the boys call Esther after Esther Williams, who symbolizes their love of things American -- the movie's title itself is presumably a Yugoslav bastardization of a postwar American nonsense song, "Hey! Ba-Ba-Re-Bop." Esther squires them into manhood, but not in the usual sense. She's their chaste love, a part of their boyhood world, or that presexual part of a boy's life when being a man and having a different sort of relationship with women is a potent, just barely unattainable dream.
As Esther, Gala Videnovic has just the right touch of innocent ripeness to be both a fantasy figure and pal to her brood; she's on the verge of womanhood but there's still a bit of the tomboy in her. The movie stands too far away from her though, and from the boys as well. Nobody breaks away from the pack to create a strong individual impression. The most vivid character is the villain in the piece, an aggressively unreformed Party member who intimidates the kids and tries to pry Esther away from the group.
Acin catches Belgrade at that point in its history when the Russian influence was on the wane and Western tastes were beginning to take a foothold. But you feel that perhaps he was more interested in the historical details than in the human story, and as a result, the political backdrop threatens to overwhelm the figures in the foreground.
There's a framing story, set in 1985, in which the boys, now grown into their forties and scattered across the world, discover from a newspaper obit that Miriana has died, leaving a daughter named -- appropriately -- Esther. And it adds poignancy to the story to see how age has brought about changes in the boys and yet left them, for the most part, as they were at 17.
The movie opens with a sequence in which the boys row Miriana, who for political reasons cannot obtain a passport, across the Adriatic to join her father in Italy. She's pregnant at the time, we assume by one of the boys, and we watch them carefully, trying to pick out which one it is. But Acin plays rather neatly off our assumptions, and the revelation of the child's actual father adds another layer to his narrative.
But there's a draggy predictability in the way Acin tells parts of his story. When the ardent Sacha (Dragan Bjelogrlic) invites Esther up to the attic where his grandmother produces fake Russian icon paintings to sell on the black market and, in the dusty rays of sunlight, reads her a poem professing his love for her, we know that eventually, all four boys will get around to making the same overtures, each in his own way.
The movie isn't muted; it has a bright, uncomplicated spirit. But the meaning of Acin's story somehow gets lost in the telling. If Acin had chosen one of the boys as his narrator -- or Miriana -- it might have sharpened the film's point of view. As it is, the focus is spread out, diffused. It's too-thin soup. Hey Babu Riba, at the Key, is rated R and contains sexual situations.