A powerful yet bleak dramatization of Croatian fascist soldiers at the end of their tether, “The Blacks” is a taut pic full of big ideas from co-director/writers Zvonimir Juric and Goran Devic. Using flashbacks to achieve narrative impact, this is one of the best films from the Balkans in the past year. Passed over by A-list festivals yet enthusiastically embraced at smaller events, pic should prove a good pickup for brave distribs.
Juric has commented that “Alien” was an inspiration for his and Devic’s script, both in terms of that film’s mounting tension and its strategy of enclosing characters in a stifling space. Part of the novelty and fascination of “The Blacks” is how it incorporates horror tropes — sudden time shifts, a mood of growing dread inside four-walled enclosures — into a complex war movie hinging on the final criminal acts of an ultra-right-wing black-ops unit.
A superbly executed 22-minute opening seemingly positions the pic as an intense war movie as it tracks a unit in the battlefield. Ivo (Ivo Gregurevic), the worn and somewhat frazzled commander of the so-called “Blacks” unit that does the dirty work prohibited by the legit Croat army during the Balkan civil war, leads his men on a mission to retrieve comrades killed in a minefield. The unit’s unsteady cohesion and knack for literally going in circles hints at a coming crackup, even before they reach their intended goal.
Like Vladimir Perisic’s strong 2009 debut, “Ordinary People,” about a black-ops Serbian unit, “The Blacks” can be viewed as an oblique explanation of what undid the rogue right-wing groups that turned the Balkans war into a state-sanctioned bloodbath. A sudden flashback, from the unit’s botched mission to its dank, eerie headquarters hours earlier, takes up the majority of the pic’s running time.
Ivo learns the brother of Blacks member File (Stjepan Pete) has been caught in the minefield, and a recording of his radio transmission has been leaked to a civilian radio station. In order to cover up evidence of war crimes, Ivo draws up a plan for the Blacks to recover their dead comrades and detonate a nearby dam to flood the area. Crucial to the plot is a new man in the group, Barisic (Kresimir Mikic), who claims to be able to handle detonation equipment, and who accidentally comes upon a blood-stained garage where the unit has regularly executed opponents.
Audience awareness of the characters’ fates has the interesting effect of amplifying rather than diminishing the dramatic tension, compounded by the committed cast. Among the powerful ensemble, Gregurevic’s performance stands out as a study in the banality of evil — a morally numb man also capable of being a loving father.
Production designer Mladen Ozbolt and cinematographer Branko Linta skillfully conspire with Juric and Devic to create a physical environment drained of any real color and exuding wretchedness. Composers Jura Ferlina and Pavao Miholjevic establish the mood of doom over an opening series of shots, straight out of a Jacques Tourneur film, of a black cat and her litter. So total is the overall production effect that the viewer may want to take a shower once the film is over.