People tend to believe that time mixed with the thirst for truth eventually will expose all well-kept historical secrets, but political trends around the world suggest sanctioned obfuscation is making a serious comeback — not that it ever truly fell out of official favor. Slovenian Oscar submission “The Miner” provides commentary on that matter with the fact-inspired tale of a Bosnian immigrant who inadvertently discovers a WWII-era mass grave that locals would prefer to keep buried, literally and figuratively. This quietly forceful drama, its power heightened by both writer-director Hanna Slak and lead thesp Leon Lucev’s judicious restraint, is all the stronger for avoiding the hand-wringing melodrama its subject might easily have elicited.
Cutbacks amid the general economic crisis of 2009 are winnowing the ranks at a mining concern that middle-aged Alija Basic (Lucev) works for, although as a very long-term employee, his position seems relatively safe. A crass young upstart of a manager (Jure Henigman) informs him the company is being sold, and to expedite that transfer, a tapped-out coal mine, closed off since 1945, must be inspected. The cheapskate boss refuses Alija any help, save for 16-year-old apprentice Tom (Nikolaj Burger), who has no experience but requires no salary.
Despite his somewhat gruff, monosyllabic nature, Alija duly uses the task at hand to teach this greenhorn some basics of the profession. They’ve hardly begun, however, before they encounter a makeshift wall blocking one of the tunnels. When they drill through, they’re immediately greeted by a skeleton — the remains of someone who long ago was clearly, desperately trying to get out.
It becomes obvious soon enough that plenty of locals knew what was down there, and aside from one nearby elderly resident (Boris Cavazza) with a related personal history, absolutely no one wants to discuss it — let alone see it publicized. But Alija can’t leave things alone, even in the face of threats from his employer, police and others. As a youth he’d been sent here to work, which kept him safe when war broke out back home; not only did his entire family perish, but their bodies were never recovered, let alone properly buried. How can he let the same fate befall victims of prior atrocities? The authorities claim at first he’s simply found evidence of an “accident,” then that the bodies must be Axis soldiers and traitors no one cares about. Yet it’s clear there were women and children among the untold number (possibly thousands) of people who were evidently marched into this pit to die.
Though it opens with the usual “based on a true story” note, “The Miner” provides no more detail about the crime than the fictive Alija himself is able to suss out. It’s hinted that the dead were refugees passing through after the end of the war; whether they were killed out of prejudice, thieving greed, or something else remains a mystery. Instead, the focus is kept tightly on our protagonist’s close-mouthed determination, which drives him onward despite awareness that his actions may well endanger the life he’s carved out in Slovenia for himself, his wife (Marina Redzepovic), and their children (Zala Djuric Ribic, Tin Marn).
When the public backlash gets too rough, Alija briefly flees to his grown daughter’s flat in the city, and the film momentarily grows a bit overstated as he finds himself going mano-a-mano with riot police during a general-strike march. But that’s a rare misstep — one “The Miner” recovers from with an effectively low-key resolution. If Slak’s direction of her fourth feature sometimes verges on minimalist mannerism, her less-is-more approach nonetheless proves powerful overall. And she couldn’t ask for a more eloquently terse Everyman lead than veteran Croatian thesp Lucev, whose slow-burning performance here is one of his best.
Though seldom showy on any level, the design contributions are flavorfully atmospheric, with technical assembly sure-handed.