TORONTO 2001 REVIEW: Casualties of (Balkan) War: No One Wins in Smart "No Man's Land"
by Peter Brunette
(indieWIRE/09.07.01) -- It's not much of a date movie, and it provides little in the way of fuzzy warmheartedness or spiritual uplift (qualities that most arthouse audiences seem to be looking for these days), but Danis Tanovic's new multinational co-production, "No Man's Land" (screening this Saturday in Toronto's Gala section), is very much worth seeing nonetheless. A powerful recapitulation of everything about the recent Balkan wars that we've been desperately trying to forget, it also works as a suspenseful thriller, a subtle psychological study of men and violence, and a probing (if predictably inconclusive) analysis of just what went wrong. At times, it's even downright funny.
For a war movie, given its means, it's also appropriately modest in scope. As such, it draws attention to the human, ethical dimensions of the conflict rather than to warfare as spectacle, which is what the increasingly testosterone-addled Hollywood usually foists upon us. Mercifully, in "No Man's Land," there are no computer-generated Zeroes strafing computer-generated battleships. In fact, this movie is so low-key that, apart from the opening and closing credits, it doesn't even have any music. We have to decide what to think and feel on our own.
Featured in the competition at Cannes this year, "No Man's Land" was, fittingly, awarded the prize for best screenplay. Writer-director Tanovic is a master of timing and knows when to add a new twist to his sometimes surreal (but always believable) plot, and even new characters, just moments before we begin to tire of the old. As it progresses, the film reinvents itself a handful of times, passing from the realistic fire fights with which it begins, to a dramatic catalogue of basic survival mechanisms, and then to broad farce, before ending on a cosmic note of pessimism that, if ultimately depressing, is well and deeply earned.
Chiki (Branko Djuric) and Cera (Filip Sovagovic) are Bosnian Muslim irregulars who, wandering around in a fog looking for their unit, stumble onto the lines of Serbian forces. Taking shelter in a trench midway between the opposing camps, they are soon joined by Nino (Rene Bitorajac), a Serbian who has been sent to reconnoiter the situation. Before he is himself killed, Nino's Serbian comrade perversely booby-traps Cera's apparently lifeless body. When Cera regains consciousness, he can't move for fear of setting off the particularly loathsome kind of mine that the dead Serb has planted under him. Much of the film's suspenseful, if unemphasized poignancy -- and it is considerable -- as well as its black humor, comes from the unenviable position Cera finds himself in.
The first part of the movie largely concerns the various machinations employed by Chiki and Nino to gain the upper hand over one another. They argue violently about which side started the war, and the truth, director Tanovic cynically demonstrates, turns out to be a function of which one of them happens to be holding the gun at that moment. Just when we begin to wonder whether this one-on-one matchup is going to be able to hold our attention for another hour, Tanovic opens the drama up to a bunch of feckless French UN "peacekeepers" who come in for some broad-brushed, caricatured shellacking. This clueless, overwhelmed group is followed by a voracious international press corps who are at first depicted conventionally as ethically-challenged, obnoxious vultures.
But the French sergeant, it turns out, is the most warmly human of all the participants, and it is the leader of the press corps (Katrin Cartlidge, from "Breaking the Waves") who in fact cuts through the UN's bureaucratic red tape to get something done about the men's plight. The most heavily lampooned character is Colonel Soft (Simon Callow), a Brit who commands UN forces from cushy Zagreb and seems only interested in damage control and playing chess with his mini-skirted assistant. Though he initially comes off looking very bad indeed, his actions finally come to be seen as motivated by an all too justified cynicism. He knows that nothing anyone does will make the slightest bit of difference here.
The acting is superb without being flashy or self-conscious, as the cast gingerly negotiates Tanovic's bracing shifts in tone and the unexpected nuances he embeds in his characters. His script is so perfectly calibrated that he knows, for example, to make Nino, his main Serbian character, just slightly more sympathetic than his Muslim counterpart in order to counteract all the bad feelings toward Serbs that most audiences will bring to the film. And for a film made in the former Yugoslavia there is a surprising (and altogether welcome) absence of the shouting and spectacular emotional overkill that, unless you happen to be high on speed, mar too many of those films.
The final shot of "No Man's Land" -- high up, from the eye of heaven which has, it is implied, seen all this before -- is profoundly bitter. It's also profoundly right.
[Peter Brunette, who contributes regularly to the Boston Globe and has written several books on film history and theory, is currently writing a book on Wong Kar-wai.]