Based on a war crime committed during the Serbo-Croatian war and on Jurica Pavicic’s novelization of same, Vinko Bresan’s “Witnesses” boldly crafts a moving drama around the murder of a Serb living in a Croatian town by three young local militiamen. Film’s politics occasioned heated debate at its previews at the Pula and Motovun festivals, yet it won major prizes at both meets. Its intriguing storytelling and fine tech work should give it a good chance at foreign pick-up and make it much in demand at festivals.
An atmosphere of fateful foreboding somewhere between war thriller and film noir is established as a military convoy drives through a rainy town square at night. Pic’s opening tour-de-force shot, which lasts six minutes, proceeds inside a rustic house to show a woman in black (Mirjana Karanovic) standing beside her husband’s coffin, with her youngest son (Kresimir Mikic) and his two friends from the militia.
The boys rashly decide to blow up the house of a Serbian man, but after killing him, they discover his 10-year-old daughter has seen the whole thing. Panicking, they lock her in the mother’s garage while they debate what to do with her.
Another son (Leon Lucev) returns home from the front missing a leg. His girlfriend (Alma Prica), a journalist for the local paper, is investigating the murder of the Serb along with an honest police detective. But the detective is faced with a terrible tradeoff offered by a surgeon willing to operate on his severely injured wife only if he’ll back off on his investigation.
The small town makes it plausible that all the characters are related in multiple ways and everyone has his or her personal interests at heart. As the story is retold, Rashomon-style, from various characters’ viewpoints, adding new information about the murder — and the potential murder of the little girl — the dramatic tension rises.
Though the film is clearly opposed to these crimes, it carefully steers away from sympathizing with the murder victim, instead trying to calibrate the two sides, using flashbacks to the war to show how it gives rise to ethnic hatred and moral ambiguities. The attempt at balance, however, may be more convincing to foreign audiences than to local ones.
Mainly known for sardonic comedies “How the War Started on My Island” and “The Marshal,” both huge local hits, Bresan demonstrates he can handle drama in an equally original way. Fine ensemble acting establishes strongly limned characters and keeps the complicated narrative structure clear. The poker-faced Lucev keeps auds guessing as to his morals until the last, while Mikic as his hotheaded young brother becomes progressively more reprehensible. Famed Serbian actress Karanovic, cast against nationality as the mother, has the weight of a tragic Greek heroine.
A driving score by composer Mate Matisic is used sparingly for rhythm and tension. The cleanly shot cinematography of Bresan’s regular d.p. Zivko Zalar, who co-scripted the film, makes expressive use of a gray-green scale to underline the story’s funereal gravity.