War criminals are bizarre creatures, to say the least. Undoubtedly despicable but equally intriguing, they embody the worst of what humanity is capable of.
It takes a certain kind of psychopathic mentality to carry out abhorrent acts and appear seemingly unaffected by the consequences. Perhaps they are immune
to such brutal violence because they have forced themselves to justify it as means to a righteous cause. Their self-absorbed megalomania prevents them from
empathizing with others. Desensitized and arrogant, they see anyone that stands in their way as disposable. One of these repulsive characters is at the
center of Montenegro’s first ever Academy Award entry, Draško Đurović’s film Ace of Spades: Bad Destiny, in which the intrinsic poignancy
of the region’s past conflicts is vivid.
As part of an Orthodox Christian paramilitary squad known as Shadows, which operated during the war in former Yugoslavia in the early 1990s, intimidating
Beli (Branimir Popovic) became one of the most notorious and sadistic killers in the team. After having the sickening audacity to record one of his most gruesome achievements, he is sent to prison while is comrades fled the country. Partially motivated by greed, but also eager to achieve infamous grandeur, he sells the tape to
Now free after serving his sentence, he realizes the tape doesn’t only put him at risk of facing the International Court, but also of retaliation
from his ex-brothers in arms. Ready to escape to Italy before the authorities get to him, Beli returns to his family’s home in a small Montenegrin town
where his libertine younger brother Kento (Momcilo Otasevic) still resides. The latter now shares the house with a Swedish couple that pays him for his sexual favors. Unable
to obtain money from them, Beli executes the foreigners upon his arrival.
Circumstantially turned into a fugitive, Kento, is now forcefully on the run with his insane brother. After briefly visiting their benevolent uncle to get
cash, the duo heads towards a coastal town to visit one of Beli’s acquaintances that can help them escape. Reluctantly the man (Predrag Bjelac) accepts to help them as long
as they don’t hurt his traumatized daughter, Sanja (Jelena Simic), who can’t speak after surviving the war in Sarajevo. Shifting the morality tale into a romantic
getaway, Kenta quickly shows interest in beautifully silent Sanja, and decides to help her recover. While the lovebirds get to know each other, Beli
realizes he doesn’t have much time as his crimes have finally caught with him.
Channeling an unsettling and charming demeanor Branimir Popovic fantastically plays Beli as a sort of caricatured villain, which steals the film in every
scene with his self-important statements and depravity. Continually motivated by his sexually deviant fantasies, Beli acts upon his degenerate urges
seeking to satisfy them at all costs. Nonetheless, despite dealing with the aftermath of terrible events, an interesting satirical tone permeates the film.
None of the characters take themselves too seriously, and though the comedic elements don’t always work, they make for an amusing film. From a mawkishly
funny photo session between Kenta and Sanja to Beli hilariously and scarily taking communion with cocaine rather than wine, the grim sense of humor is definitely an
unexpected standout. Even American actor Michael Madsen plays a small part here as Beli’s friend-tuned-enemy, and adds to the irreverent allure of the
Achieving full status as a sovereign country in 2006, the young Balkan nation is still struggling with the sequels of its time as a Yugoslav republic and the
warring state in which it existed. In the same manner its cinema is still developing and discovering it’s own unique voice in relation to its surrounding
neighbors. As it is made clear in the film via the characters expressed discomfort, Montenegrins don’t consider themselves culturally Europeans despite geographically
being part of the continent. Their idiosyncrasies don’t reflect those of wealthy countries on the Western coast, which provides them with a different
perspective on their own difficulties.
Even if superstitious Kento thinks of the eponymous ace of spades as a bad omen, the people in this land seem to manage the cards destiny dealt them with
undeterred perseverance. Overlooking the handful of technical issues present in the film, Ace of Spades: Bad Destiny is an engaging and
darkly comedic work that shows promise not only for its director but also for his nation’s cinematic artistry.