Sarajevo-born director Ademir Kenovic, whose first features, “A Little Bit of Soul” and “Man, God, the Monster” (aka “MGM/Sarajevo”), were shown in the Directors Fortnight, returns to Cannes with “The Perfect Circle,” a compassionate tale with poetic touches about the relationship between a poet and two orphaned children during the Bosnian war. Hard on the edges but soft at the center, this story of love, camaraderie and survival has a theatrical shot in major international markets, including the U.S., due to its universal antiwar message and generous heart, and it will easily travel the global fest circuit.
New film is not as bold as “MGM/Sarajevo,” which Kenovic and his co-directors subtitled “an aesthetic approach from film directors, with their views considerably changed through the phenomenon of war.” But it’s a highly emotional, often moving and lyrical film, one that assumes an honorable place in the long cinematic tradition of tales about children in war. Though grounded in a particular time and place, “The Perfect Circle” recalls such classics about World War II as Rene Clement’s “Forbidden Games” and Andrei Tarkovsky’s “Ivan’s Childhood,” and the recent “Kolya,” which wasn’t set in a military zone but centered on the evolving bond between a mature artist and a young boy.
Story begins in the household of Hamza (Mustafa Nadarevic), a poet accused by his wife (Jasna Diklic) of being too preoccupied with his selfish concerns to help her and their teenage daughter, Miranda (Mirela Lambic), leave the war zone for safer places like London or Switzerland. With the entire region ravaged by war, Hamza is not passive, but he seems to observe the situation from a distance.
Shortly after his wife and daughter leave Sarajevo, Hamza stumbles into Adis (Almedin Leleta) and Kerim (Almir Podgorica), two orphaned boys, aged 7 and 9, respectively, who find refuge in his house. The siblings have lost their entire family, except for aunt Aicha, who’s now missing. With no choice, and almost reluctantly, Hamza promises to help them find their aunt and reach safety.
Tale concerns the evolving love and commitment between the children and Hamza, who becomes their surrogate father, a man who learns about the responsibilities — and rewards — of having a family. Narrative is structured as a journey whose purpose is to find aunt Aicha, but actually chronicles how the trio, plus a wounded dog picked up along the way, become a tight-knit family in the best sense of the term.
Kenovic, who also co-wrote the script, shows how brutal conditions become conducive to the formation of surrogate families that are much more meaningful than biological kinship. Indeed, the trip proves to be as much a learning experience for the older man as it is for the children. A bright, extremely perceptive kid, Adis learns how to overcome his fears. He serves as translator and mediator between the outside world and his older brother, Kerim, a physically strong boy who’s mute but possesses some hearing capacity.
Helmer strikes the right balance between the particular and universal elements of the Bosnian war, which should help his movie find a larger audience. He punctuates his road movie with devastating scenes that illuminate the madness and arbitrary nature of violence in this conflict. The streets are filled with snipers, and shootings erupt in the least expected places. Relatively peaceful moments — a picnic by the lake; fishing by the river — are interrupted by grenade explosions and indiscriminate killing.
Boasting an authentic look and sharp camera work (by Milenko Uherka), the film captures the war’s ruinous effects on innocent civilians, but also the ability of human nature to rise above petty fighting. In one of many haunting moments that convey this duality, Hamza loses control over his rational faculties and begins to recite poetry and perform acrobatics on an empty street, watched with alarm by fellow citizens from their shelter. An elderly woman, who valiantly gets out of the shelter to rescue him, is fatally shot by a sniper, while he survives.
Appropriately, the story begins and ends in a crowded cemetery that has no more room for casualties, and film’s recurrent visual motif is that of Hamza watching himself hanged on a rope.