“Premeditated Murder” is the most striking of the new Serbian films. The title refers not to a thriller, but to the film’s cold-eyed view of the war in what was once Yugoslavia. Against a background of student anti-war strikes in 1992 Belgrade, a doomed love story between a hip student and a country-bred soldier foreshadows the painful legacy that will long haunt Serbia’s next generation. After its bow in the Berlin Panorama, this well-told tale should prove an informative counterweight to Emir Kusturica’s live-wire epic “Underground” among niche audiences.
Based on an acclaimed novel by Slobdoan Selenic, who died shortly after penning the screenplay, “Murder” contrasts a recent love story (1992) with a past romance (1944), both doomed by the inhumanity of Yugoslav politics. They also make the point that Milosevic’s regime in today’s Yugoslavia parallels the worst excesses of the Communist partisans.
While Builka (Branka Katic) takes photos of anti-war sit-ins and demos at the university for a with-it young publisher (Svetozar Cvetkovic), she stumbles across Bogdan (Nebojsa Glogovac), a soldier on leave from the front with a broken leg. As is the case with many wounded veterans from regions outside Serbia (he’s from a village in Croatia), there’s no room for him in the hospital , and even outpatient treatment is given grudgingly. He ends up sleeping on Builka’s couch.
Innocent and naive, Bogdan vaunts his patriotism and makes no bones about his hatred of Croats, who have taken over his family home. Builka centers the film’s viewpoint in a modern, rational contempt for the war and warmakers. “How many Croats, give or take a thousand, will you have to whack to recover your house?” she asks Bogdan. She teases him for being “a warrior” and a bumpkin, he protests against her swearing and modernity, and the two fall in love. But nothing can stop the tragic call of the battlefields.
In a far less interesting parallel story, Builka reconstructs her beautiful grandmother Jelena’s (Ana Sofrenovic) diaries from World War II. Jelena’s wealthy family has had a country house confiscated by Tito’s partisans, and the head of the family (Bata Stojkovic) is in prison. To help her stepfather, Jelena gets involved with rough partisan leader Krsman (Sergije Trifunovic), whom she despises yet is attracted to. A dangerous triangle forms with her stepbrother Jovan (Dragan Micanovic), and tragedy inevitably looms.
Making up for his lack of filmmaking experience, young stage director Gorcin Stojanovic has worked closely with cinematographer Radoslav Vladic to create a fluid camera style without unneeded flash. His attention to character is evident in top-flight perfs by Katic, as the cynical city girl, and Glogovac, as the gentle soldier. The moment of truth when he confesses he doesn’t believe in the war is quite chilling in its implications. Sofrenovic is another talent to watch in the more stereotyped role of the cold, Deneuve-like beauty Jelena.
Though the ending to dramas like these can only be downbeat, the film is not sad to watch. Stojanovic’s dialogue, even via subtitles, includes plenty of witty lines, and the Builka-Bogdan relationship is cheerfully teasing up to the end. Zoran Eric’s score is pleasant, Petar Markovic’s editing no-nonsense.