Danis Tanovic revisits the milieu of his first (and best) film, “No Man’s Land,” in “Cirkus Columbia,” which uses the absurdist tale of a man returning to his native Herzegovinian village to illustrate the 1992 beginnings of the bloody internecine strife in Bosnia. Though burdened by major problems of tone, Tanovic’s fourth feature succeeds in making clear the incredulity with which most people regarded the thought of war and dissolution of Yugoslavia, as well as the machinations of various opportunistic groups. Commercial prospects seem slim outside the region, but fests are lining up.
Now that the communists are out of power in his backwater town and an Ustase-connected party is in, Divko (Miki Manojlovic, in a familiar blustering macho role he could play in his sleep) returns home with revenge on his mind. His primary target is wife Lucija (a drab-looking Mira Furlan, “Lost”), who failed to follow him to Germany when he was forced to flee some 20 years before.
Arriving in a ruby red Mercedes, accompanied by gorgeous girlfriend, Azra (Jelena Stupljanin), Divko evicts Lucija and their immature 20-year-old son, Martin (Boris Ler), from the family home. After flaunting his wealth and generally behaving like a schmuck, Divko ultimately gets a chance to prove he’s not such a bad guy after all; subplots include Martin’s falling out with best friend Pivac (Mario Knezovic), who joins a pro-Croatian paramilitary group, and Martin’s not very credible fling with Azra.
As the superficial characters fret over their petty concerns, the troubles of the rest of Yugoslavia seem far from their little village, although the script (penned by Tanovic and Ivica Dikic, based on Dikic’s novella) carefully keeps them simmering in the background. In one particularly ironic reminder of the era’s lost innocence, TV news footage shows the Serbs shelling Dubrovnik, as a disbelieving Divko remarks, “What will they do next? Blow up the old bridge in Mostar?”
Unfortunately, the narrative allows the old-fashioned and often silly story of Divko, Azra, Martin and Lucija to outweigh the deeper theme of the approaching war. When armed conflict finally arrives in the village, it lacks the dramatic impact it should have.
While much of the humor in “No Man’s Land” derived from its use of stereotypes, this tactic doesn’t serve “Cirkus Columbia” as well. There are a few laughs to be had from the hick-town jokes (it’s a place where a vegetarian is offered chicken because poultry isn’t considered meat), but the sexist archetypes of the female characters (the always cooking-and-cleaning mother vs. the seductive sexpot) get old fast. With the distaff roles so limited, the men have more opportunities in the thesping department, although looker Stupljanin leaves a strong visual impression, mainly due to her skimpy wardrobe.
Shooting in a soft, color-faded palette in which Divko’s car, girlfriend and black cat stand out brazenly, lenser Walther van de Ende creates a sense of nostalgia for a vanished world.
Before showing the film to an international audience, the producers might want to add some pre-credits information explaining the setting and historical context.