Zdenko Jelčić ignites the flame: 50 Years Award


The award, celebrating domestic filmmakers who have devoted their life-long careers to filmmaking and indebted Croatian cinema, has been presented since the early days of Motovun Film Festival

Running for a quarter of a century is a special achievement for a small film festival, but a fruitful and passionate acting career spanning half a century is an accomplishment of almost dizzying heights. Both of these feats deserve to be celebrated in a special way, among singular people. Therefore, as the festival reaches a new peak this year, in the mountains of Gorski Kotar, Cinehill’s 50 Years Award will go to Zdenko Jelčić – a Croatian thespian whose remarkable career was launched by playing Commander Ljubo in the Gorski Kotar-set drama series Kapelski kresovi. The iconic show that marked the region famously made the streets empty as it aired, while audiences swooned at Commander Ljubo in front of their TV sets throughout Yugoslavia. Many residents of Gorski Kotar were extras in the series and participated in various other ways, and they still remember that period vividly. The occasion is also a moment of joyful nostalgia, in a re-encounter with Jelčić half a century later.

Born in Čapljina, Zdenko Jelčić fell in love with film in his youth, daily feeding his passion for the seventh art at Slavica cinema: “I saw a different film every day. I saw everything, anything, and I saw it three times.” Despite his great love of film, he took up acting only after arriving in Zagreb, while studying political science. Prompted by college friends, he was drawn deep into the world of theatre and never looked back. Since he never does anything half way, he finished his political studies and applied the same level of commitment to an impressive acting career that would ensue.

This versatile actor stormed theatre stages, TV programmes and the big screen. “When you work with a good director, there is no difference between working in theatre and on film,” he says. During a career spanning half a century, he played in some of the most interesting Yugoslav and Croatian works, from dramas Don’t Lean Out the Window (1977) and Occupation in 26 Pictures (1978), to The Small Train Robbery (1984) and Death Diploma (1989), all the way to recent accomplishment – Das Fräulein (2006) and Mare (2020) directed by Croatian-Swiss director Andrea Štaka, Branko Schmidt’s Vegetarian Cannibal (2012), Rajko Grlić’s The Constitution (2016), Josip Žuvan’s Carbide (2022), and many more. To a broader audience he is also famous for playing Blago Antić in the series The Paper (2006 – 2020) directed by Dalibor Matanić.

The number of addresses he has changed in search of artistic satisfaction rivals the number of roles he has stared in. After the army and Kapelski kresovi, he returned to Čapljina, where he founded the Čapljina Summer, and after conquering the theatre stage in Dubrovnik, he headed to Paris. “I earned my living as a pretty face. There were beautiful ladies in Paris, and I was hot,” jokes Zdenko.

He even spent 25 years in Switzerland, where he went for love, following his wife, Dijana. There, in the fold of the Schauspielhaus Zürich, he performed a number of theatre and television roles. Commenting on how it is often difficult for actors to act in a foreign language, he laughs: “I was lucky because my name was Zdenko Jelčić, so nobody would let me play a Swiss or a German, but I could be cast as a Russian or a Macedonian… I had to pretend I didn’t speak German as fluently as I did.”

Without turning his back on acting even as he gets older, he adds literature to his list of artistic successes. He has written three books: “The first is about sex, the second is about theatre and the third is about Herzegovina.” Of these, two have been published so far, U traganju za izgubljenim Narcisom (2010) and Sponzoruša u Parizu (2015). Commenting on Sponzoruša, he laughs: “There was some fumbling, but most of it is true.”

One of his favourite films in which he also played a part is Don’t Lean Out the Window directed by Bogdan Žižić, in which actor Ivo Gregurević made his debut. When asked what his favourite film is, he jokingly replies, “I only watch films in which I act, because that’s what a good director does, I don’t even watch other movies.” Adding in a more serious tone that he is still a classicist at heart and prefers old films: “A film is a story told in pictures, without excessive dialogue. Casablanca is still my favourite.”

He expects three things from an actor: authenticity, autonomy and being autochthonous, one leads to the other. “Being autochthonous is the country where you are from, family, a wider community. An actor who possesses these three things is bound to be a good actor,” and Zdenko Jelčić undoubtedly is.

The 50 Years Award will be presented in cooperation with the Croatian Film Directors’ Guild, at the 25th edition of Cinehill Motovun, which will be held in Motovun and Gorski Kotar, 22 – 29 July.  

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