By Eric Kohn | Indiewire February 14, 2013 at 8:00AM
Danis Tanovic's "An Episode in the Life of an Iron Picker" has plenty to say, but as tragic observations go it's curiously dry. A dramatically compelling social realist parable about the underprivileged Bosnian and Herzegovinian lower class, it's closer to conventional cinema verite than to fiction. Shot in nine days with lightweight handheld cameras, the movie reconstructs the experiences of an uninsured war veteran struggling to scrounge resources that will save his wife's life. The director cast a family who actually went through this ordeal and realizes their story with a pared-down efficiency that foregrounds its authentic roots
When we first meet the iron picker in question, Nazif Mujic goes about a modest routine on autopilot: He and his colleagues travel around the desolate, snowy landscape rummaging through garbage and scrapping abandoned cars before cashing them in. A long day dovetails into casual after-work drinks and dinner at home with his family at their modest home, where pregnant wife Senada dotes on him and their two young daughters, Sandra and Semsa. Taking a page from recent traditions in Romanian neorealism, Tanovic's slow-burn approach establishes the apparent stability of the Mujic household, a decision that effectively underscores the shock that follows when his wife needs immediate medical attention.
Driving hours to the nearest clinic, Nazif learns that in order for his wife to receive the emergency treatment required to save her life he'll have to foot a massive bill. With those stakes in place, "Episode in the Life of an Iron Picker" proceeds to follow Nazif through a series of additional hurdles, further complicating the odds. Tanovic's highly restrained approach, devoid of both a soundtrack and fancy camerawork, strips away artifice. It often feels as though we're merely watching Nazif's life tick by, which makes it easy to invest in his conundrum while occasionally creating dramatic inertia.
Still, "Episode in the Life of an Iron Picker" steadily illustrates a negligent health care system to engrossing ends. An exposé clothed as story, it eventually arrives at a monologue delivered by the lead character in which he recounts his violent experiences in the Bosnian war, a harrowing saga that culminates in his present circumstances: no resources to provide safety for himself or his loved ones.
In a larger sense, the movie ably explores the risks of daily life and the capacity for sudden events to rupture any semblance of a reliable existence. As Nazif undergoes a series of Job-like trials -- his car won't start, the electricity goes out, his wallet's empty and his wife loses the will to live -- his perseverance develops into the core stabilizing ingredient of Tanovic's elliptical structure.
Unfortunately, Nazif seems less invested in the project than he probably was the first time around. In an oddly stilted performance, he never looks particularly frantic; circumstances appear to be a nuisance. Without a sympathetic character, "Episode in the Life of an Iron Picker" is sustained by the points it sets out to make -- until it makes them repeatedly. We can tell Nazif and his family have lived through this ordeal once already. It's hard not to think that if activism was Tanovic's key intention, then the movie may have benefited from taking the shape of a more conventional documentary. Still, it's close enough to a realistic depiction that even viewers unable to feel for the characters will still empathize.
Criticwire grade: B
HOW WILL IT PLAY? A theatrical release would be minimal in North America, but festivals should sustain the movie and word of mouth may keep it fairly visible over the next year or so.