A flashback to the playfully tender East Euro cinema of yore with a forceful if predictable punch in the closing reel, Rajko Grlic’s “Border Post” marks a virile comeback for the Croatian veteran after his weak-kneed “Josephine.” In the last years of the old Yugoslav republic, young soldiers comically breeze through enlistment in a remote outpost until tragedy senselessly intervenes. Humorous tone recalls the outrageous horseplay of “MASH” with more joyful innocence. Pic has soared to the top of the charts in the former Yugoslavia, but outside the Balkans, its main battlefield probably will be TV and ancillary.
This is the first film after Yugoslavia’s bloody break-up to be co-produced by all its former republics: Croatia, Serbia, Slovenia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, and Macedonia. Grlic, who is concurrently a film teacher at Ohio U. and the artistic director of Croatia’s popular Motovun Film Festival, brings an experienced storyteller’s sensitivity to the tale, set in 1987.
For recruits Siriscevic (Toni Gojanovic), a med student from Croatia, and his Serbian buddy Paunovic (Sergej Trifunovic), doing military service in the Yugoslav army is more like vacation than boot camp. Their nemesis is commanding officer Pasic (Bosnian thesp Emir Hadzihafizbegovic), a good-natured alcoholic who yearns to be transferred away from the Macedonian-Albanian border.
When he discovers he’s contracted syphilis from a prostitute, he strong-arms Siriscevic into giving him a three-week treatment. To explain to his young wife Mirjana (Verica Nedeska-Trajkova), living in a nearby town, why he can’t visit her, he invents a crisis with the Albanians that keeps everyone on the base. Foolishly, he sends good-looking Siriscevic to her on errands, not realizing that love is in the air.
Wittily scripted with writer Ante Tomic, the solid piece of classic filmmaking revolves around detailed characterization and an able cast, culled from the top thesps of former Yugoslavia. Particularly notable are Hadzihafizbegovic’s honor-driven Bosnian commander and Nedeska-Trajkova as his smoldering wife. The multi-ethnic characters contribute to the film’s keen sense of a world awkwardly poised between Tito’s paternalistic socialism and Milosevic’s bitter ethnic wars. Their false sense of living a carefree existence, their lack of knowledge about what awaits them (though the film is peppered with ominous clues), gives a much larger dimension to the cruel final scenes, which close the film with a stomach-churning punch.
Grlic’s consummate control over tone shows as he swings from gently poking fun at Tito’s ghost to heartbreaking tragedy, via the petty vindictiveness of military power. Tech work is all high quality, from lenser Slobodan Trninic’s spectacular sunsets along the coast and Sanja Ilic’s well-dosed musical commentary, to editor Andrija Zafranovic’s seamless sewing together of plot strands.