Adark-hued political parable based on fact, “Colonel Bunker” shows in stark detail the lengths to which an insanely paranoid regime will go to terrorize its own people. Occasional technical weaknesses, and one or two self-consciously poetic interludes, do little to blunt the film’s grimly humorous impact. Director Kujtim Cashku’s ninth feature (submitted by Albania for the forthcoming best foreign-language pic Oscar) deserves to put his country’s little-known movie industry firmly on the map.
In 1974, the hard-line Stalinist Enver Hoxha regime, having quarreled with virtually every other state in the world, retreated into sulky isolation. A program known as “bunkerization” was instituted, with 700,000 semi-subterranean concrete bunkers to be built for the population of 3 million in case of hostile action by any of Albania’s myriad enemies. The program, which calls on virtually the entire economic resources of Europe’s most impoverished country, is to continue until 1981.
Cashku’s film focuses on the man chosen to organize this concrete nightmare: Muro Neto, a professional soldier who becomes known as “Colonel Bunker.” Secretly skeptical about his task, he nonetheless obeys. However, the same day that he’s assigned the job, Albania’s politburo decides to abolish all military ranks, thus thwarting him of an expected generalship. When Neto finally displays his resentment publicly, it brings about his downfall.
Early on, there’s a scene — in darkness cut by flashing lights and wailing sirens — where a panicky populace is hurried down into underground shelters by uniformed figures. What makes the familiar sequence so bizarre is that the people are bewildered peasants driving their cows and goats along with them. The deranged response of Albania’s leaders to an imagined external threat underlines the film’s message that the true enemy of the people was their own government.
As portrayed by Albanian actor Agim Qirjaqi, Neto is no stony-faced apparatchik but a troubled figure, conscious of his vulnerable position and forcing himself to go along with a policy he knows is insane. A slight, balding figure, he looks rather like a melancholic version of Phil Silvers’ Sgt. Bilko. His one anchor is his love for his Polish wife, Ana, played with moving dignity by Anna Nehrebecka.
With its moody lighting, Afrim Spahiu’s lensing enhances the film’s atmosphere, though occasionally shaky editing and continuity mar the effect. The inclusion of some confusing, would-be lyrical episodes involving a pair of English-speaking youngsters who make love in the bunkers is a mistake, as is a cliched ending where the aged Neto follows a scantily clad beauty into a pond and drowns. (The real-life Neto is still alive, and helped with the making of the film.) However, such lapses matter little, given the revelatory power of the story the pic tells.