The Serbian film “Deserter,” by veteran Zivojin Pavlovic, is one of the most moving, depressing films to come out of the war in Yugoslavia. Subtle but sharp as a razor, the film follows two old friends, officers in the Yugoslav army, whose ways have parted. It won the Golden Leaf at the last Mediterranean film festival in Bastia. Though the international embargo against Serbia will prevent the film from being bought by many countries, it should thrive on video after finishing the fest rounds.
The story is actually based on a short story by Dostoevsky which gives the plot its backbone — a love triangle. But the personal drama of the two military men, who are both in love with a dead woman, is heightened to an anguishing pitch when viewed against the backdrop of the war. Like in a wartime “Jules and Jim,” the story’s joyous laughter of youth turns to a chain of endless funerals, battles and death.
In the early part of the film, the mixed Croatian/Serb city of Vukovar is seen as it was in 1981, a normal town where the trio of characters live and love. In the film’s memorable final horizontal tracking shot, Vukovar appears today, razed to the ground by bombs. This shot, a chilling conjunction of fiction and documentary, leaves a deep impression.
The war is explicitly visualized only in one early scene, a city battle made terrifying by noise, smoke and the tension of the Serbian soldiers. An officer breaks under the stress of battle, and as he flees in panic, he shoots a pregnant girl.
Rados Bajic is introduced as the gentlemanly major who has to court-martial the killer. Bajic himself is on the verge of a nervous breakdown and is sent home to Belgrade for some rest. There he bumps into an old buddy (Rade Serbedzija), now a drunken deserter with an 11-year-old daughter on his hands.
In memory of their friendship and Serbedzija’s dead wife (who was Bajic’s lover), Bajic tries to lend a hand, but only sinks into a moral quagmire. Serbedzija informs him the child is really Bajic’s daughter, and dumps her on the bachelor major. Recovering from the shock, Bajic is just beginning to enjoy being a father when the girl dies. Her funeral comes close on the heels of that of another army buddy, killed in battle.
Pavlovic’s spare, sensitive direction condenses this lugubrious tale to its emotional essence. He draws out moral problems with great finesse. Serbedzija is a heel, a child beater, a liar and a deserter, but he has a basic loyalty that is touching. The morally irreproachable Bajic, on the other hand, repeats his adulterous betrayal by stealing Serbedzija’s new girlfriend (Milena Pavlovic) out from under his nose. In the end, when Bajic judges Serbedzija to be the better man, it’s not such a far-fetched conclusion.
Excellent perfs by Serbedzija and Bajic round out the two characters and make them both pitiable. Aleksandar Petkovic’s understated lensing forcefully conveys a desolate, wintertime atmosphere that numbs body and soul.