Wilder in its black humor than “MASH,” bolder in its vision of politics and the military than any movie Stanley Kubrick has made, the new Yugoslav film “Pretty Village, Pretty Flame” is one of the most audacious antiwar statements ever committed to the bigscreen. Centering on Bosnia’s brutal conflict between Serbs and Muslims, film boasts an ironic wit about the absurdities of war. An adventurous distributor should grab this eccentric film that, bolstered by strong reviews and properly handled, could become one of the high points of the cinematic year, making a stir in big cities, university towns and, of course, on the specialized circuit.
The first — and final — image shows the inauguration of a new Brotherhood and Unity tunnel by smiling American and European officials. Utilizing a multilayered narrative, with time frame constantly — but seamlessly — shifting between 1980 and 1992, tale focuses on a group of Serbian soldiers trapped by their Muslim enemies in the aforementioned tunnel, which connects Zagreb and Belgrade, and bears symbolic meanings that are just as crucial as its geographical significance.
Pic is loosely based on a true incident, a 10-day bloody standoff in which Muslims couldn’t enter and Serbs couldn’t exit the tunnel. With a nod to Fellini, the tunnel is used as a circus-like stage for the desperate soldiers to act out fables — and foibles — before they get killed, one by one.
In sensibility, pic embodies elements of Jean Paul Sartre’s existentialism and Samuel Beckett’s absurdist humanism. These seriocomic visions are applied to a situation familiar from other war movies — fighting soldiers stranded in a confined space — though never before depicted so brazenly, in a manner that’s equal parts heartbreak and hilarity.
In 1980, two young boys, Halil, a Muslim, and Milan, a Serb, have grown up together near a deserted tunnel. They never dare go inside, as they believe an ogre resides there. Twelve years later, with war looming over Bosnia, Milan (Dragan Bjelogric) and Halil (Nikola Pejakovic), now mature men, find themselves on opposing sides, fatefully heading toward confrontation.
Helmer Srdjan Dragojevie shows in shocking images how drunken Serbian militiamen destroy Muslim villages and their inhabitants, and cart away truckloads of loot. In one poignant scene, undisciplined Serbian soldiers burn a Muslim home and coldbloodedly execute its elderly owner. Upon completing the brutality, a soldier turns to his companion and says. “They say war brings out the best and the worst in a man. Where is the best?” The scene is an example of how tightly the antiwar message is woven into the fabric of this film.
Helmer juxtaposes images of bloody carnage and ostentatious statements of Serbian nationalism. Indeed, after hearing bombastic speeches, young men volunteer to fight in the war, buying from street vendors royalist insignia that they proudly pin on their uniforms. And scenes in a hospital, to which both Serbian and Muslim casualties are brought, are intercut with combat scenes, which are the film’s strongest elements.
Both dramatic tension and black humor are greatly enhanced when an American journalist is caught and held captive by the Serbs. The edgy conversations between the beautiful woman and the horny men cover a wide range of topics, from Coca-Cola and American TV to the more familiar battle of the sexes and the universal needs of human beings during war.
In one particularly searing scene, all barriers are removed when unbearable thirst forces the men and the woman to drink a fellow’s urine. Another episode has a soldier asking for a tender embrace from the femme, to which she consents, only to observe, a moment later, the man blowing his brains out. Director Dragojevic shows great facility in varying scenes’ tones from brutal to ironic to lyrical — often in a matter of seconds.
“Pretty Picture, Pretty Flame” is by no means perfect. Central premise of two buddies whose bond is threatened by divisive politics is a bit schematic for the movie’s ambitious scope, and some sequences in the tunnel and the hospital are overlong. But the emotional texture is so powerful and the technical execution so impressive that these flaws are minor beside pic’s overall impact.
Production values are first-rate: The visuals are bold, editing fluid, tempo well modulated and music terrific. Reportedly breaking all box office records in Belgrade, where it opened in June, “Pretty Village, Pretty Flame” deserves to be seen by large audiences in other countries.