An insightful focus on a family of Yugoslavian immigrants in early-’90s Vienna attempting to outrun the holocaust back home, “Jugofilm” is a first-rate addition to the growing crop of films that have attempted to convey the root causes and complexities of the worst European conflict since WWII. Somber and small-scale, pic might break out of fest ghettos with the help of a smart foreign sales effort and travel abroad to critical plaudits and appreciative arthouse auds.
First-time feature writer-director Goran Rebic took on a tough challenge: To convey the horror and destructiveness of war while showing barely a minute of fighting. Austria-based Rebic, a 28-year-old emigre from the former Yugoslavia, gambles that viewers have seen enough TV news footage that he doesn’t need a single frame of the real war to tally its casualties and the scope of its horror.
Safely ensconced in Vienna, the Serbian immigrant family of young Milan (Michi Jovanovic) seems far removed from the conflicts keeping them from returning home. The dangers of the war are clear to them, so they send for Milan’s grandmother (Ratka Krstulovic-Kusturica) and his older brother Sascha (Merab Ninidze), who are still in Yugoslavia. But Sascha is taken off the train on his way out of the country, and for more than a year the family hears nothing of his whereabouts.
When he unexpectedly arrives in Vienna with his new Bosnian wife, Suza (Tamara Simunovic), the family reunion is joyous. But their joy is short-lived. Sascha has clearly been changed by his war experiences, and rumors are rampant through the emigre community that he participated in war crimes and atrocities. The film skirts his complicity in the Serbian atrocities currently on trial in the Hague, but instead humanizes Sascha as a Balkan victim of post-traumatic stress syndrome. This choice is a controversial one, but Rebic isn’t searching for political answers, just human truths.
Sascha’s father, Bora (Ljubisa Samardzic), plainly doesn’t care what his son has done in the war. In fact, he seems to support what he sees as his son’s admirable fealty to the righteous Serb cause. Bora’s poisonous Serb nationalism slowly overwhelms his logic and the ties to his family and friends, and the increasingly haunted Sascha rejects his father’s support. He also begins to doubt Suza’s motives for joining him in Vienna and spends much of his time in isolation, working at a menial job minding the shark tanks in the local aquarium and pondering his future, as well as his kinship to the predatory beasts.
Any dreams the family holds for a better life are tragically doomed, and their plight is a vivid warning to those who think their middle-class lives are inviolate. Even a distant war can reach across borders and wreak havoc on the disengaged.
While the film’s third-act resolutions tend toward the melodramatic, and Rebic too often underlines points he already has conveyed, the collision of cultures and ancient ethnic rivalries are impressively drawn through a series of simple betrayals and petty confrontations that reap disastrous results.
Led by Ninidze’s mournful, perfectly measured performance, the work of the entire ensemble of actors is first-rate. Jerzy Palacz’s subtle, controlled lensing contributes to the film’s effective, if modestly budgeted, creation of a mood of inexorable sadness. One could fault its occasional lapses into didactic heavy-handedness, but such excesses don’t obscure the voice of a gifted and resourceful young filmmaker.