It’s a real-time film, in a single setting, shot from one locked-off camera position that shows the living room, kitchenette and hallway area of a small Belgrade apartment, in which the owner has just shot himself. But wait… come back! Take your fingers out of your ears and stop rocking back and forth in that corner: “Death of a Man in the Balkans,” despite the veritable bonfire of warning flares sent up by its premise and format, is a triumph. It’s a rare black comedy that actually elicits out-loud laughter, and our screening at the Göteborg International Film Festival rang with it, proving just how well the film overcomes the staginess of its conceit with sharp writing, wonderful characterisation, and perfectly deadpan, droll comic timing. Dark of humor but light of heart, it’s the third film from writer/director Miroslav Momcilovic, and we’re ashamed to say we’re not yet acquainted with his previous work, but if it displays even half the inventiveness and assurance seen here, we’ll be seeking it out soon. He really gives himself nowhere to hide — no effects, no discernible edits, no helpful scoring — and we have to believe that it takes a lot of unshowy skill to make something so seemingly artless play so well.
The tiny film begins with a webcam being switched on by a weeping man in a small apartment. There is some fumbling, and we cut to black. A gunshot and a muffled thud sound out and we cut back into the picture as Aca (spellcheck atom bomb Emir Hadzihafisbegovic) the next-door neighbour who has heard the noise, comes to see what has happened. His wife, then other neighbours start to show up, followed by an enterprising undertaker, distracted paramedics, a pizza delivery boy and some prickly policemen. Their reactions to the situation, and interactions with the other players, form all there is to this film, and it’s a credit to Momcilovic’s writing that it’s more than enough to keep us thoroughly amused over the film’s appropriately slender running time. And where the characters on the page might threaten to sink into stereotype, or exaggerated parody for comic effect, the performers are uniformly brilliant in pulling it back from that, imbuing each of their absurd, dimwitted or self-serving characters with the kind of humanity to which it’s impossible for us, or the film, to condescend. That said, special mention needs to go to the wonderfully hangdog Hadzihafisbegovic who, rarely offscreen even for a moment, anchors the film and gives it a lot of its surprisingly warm heart.
Even the dead man, offscreen after the brief prologue, gets a look in, in the form of a couple of small surprises timed to pay off only after his death, the foremost of them being, of course, the switching on of the webcam in the first place. If we don’t build a clearer picture of him, except as an apparently successful composer in some sort of depressive state who also had an oddball streak of mischief even around his own suicide, then that’s not really what the film is about. He, or rather his death, is simply the trigger, it acts as the rug pull from under the banal lives of his neighbours — and never are we more fully revealed as ourselves than when we’re caught off-guard, right?
Shot in only nine takes, seamlessly woven together to give the impression of continuity, really the greatest trick Momcilovic and his deft cast pull, is in making us laugh without putting us above the characters: this is not the laughter of disgust or disdain, it is the laughter of recognition, and of empathy. In the same situation, we have a creeping feeling we’d come across as similarly obtuse — the film plays in that fertile space between where we are in our minds, and where we think we ought to be, according to others. So despite the blackness of the logline and despite all the pettiness that goes on, the overriding impression we come away with is how all of these strange, silly people are at heart trying to do the right thing, but faced with something as enormous and serious and mysterious as an actual real-life death, they are simply not equipped to know quite what that is.
There’s really not a lot more to it than that. The film simply boasts the thorough mining of a contained and finite situation for comic truths about ourselves, our relationships to death, to our neighbours, and ultimately to the camera: how radically differently our behaviour is when we think there might be a chance someone’s watching. We say “simply” and perhaps that’s the biggest compliment we can pay — Momcilovic sets himself the narrowest of briefs, and gives himself the rockiest terrain to navigate, yet somehow delivers a film that feels effortless. Oh, and as a Serbian film it’s perhaps the perfect antidote for anyone who’s ever seen “A Serbian Film.”[B+/A-]