If you can laugh, all is not lost” is a sentiment expressed toward the end of “When the Dead Start Singing,” Zagreb-born vet Krsto Papic’s trenchant sociopolitical screwball satire. Pic centers on two Berlin-bound Croatian immigrants who go to great lengths to return home and find tragic wartime absurdities when they get there. If the unrestrained guffaws emanating from Montreal auds are any indication, pic is unlikely to go missing on the fest circuit and could do strong stanzas in specialized theatrical and vid markets.
Bookended by melancholy contempo scenes, comic odyssey opens in 1991 Berlin, as indefatigable Croatian immigrant Cinco Kapulica (Ivo Gregurevic) explains his foolproof plan to skeptical yet supportive pal Marinko (Ivica Vidovic). Simplicity itself, really: Accompanied by a legit death certificate insuring benefits to his family and a couple of bags of coffee for his wife, Cinco will have himself shipped to his village in a casket.
Unwittingly eluding ruthless organ transplant harvesters and a member of the Yugoslavian secret police bent on one final hit before retirement, the two make their way across the border in a series of exquisite comic set pieces during which they learn, among other things, that Cinco wasn’t the only guy with the coffin idea.
Once the small matter of switched lids and the resulting Turkish corpse is solved, the pair are caught up in the chaotic unrest of the region. Marinko discovers that the loved ones he’s left behind have been irreparably damaged by the war. The two unwittingly repel Chetnik forces who think Cinco, still dressed in his funeral suit, is leading a charge from the cemetery (“Sir, the dead are attacking us from the flank,” reports one petrified marauder).
Pic’s humor is fearless and infectious, with broad and intricate physical blocking in the first half giving way to set-bound scenes —more evocative of the material’s roots as a stage play — when Marinko learns of his wife’s fate. Final battle makes the strong point that in war, the absurdly comic and profoundly tragic often lie in the same trench. Tech credits are OK on an obviously thin budget, but pic offers too much to look at and think about to dawdle on such things.