Essentially a self-reflexive war film that borrows some horror conventions, “The Living and the Dead” brings nothing new to either genre. Debuting Croat helmer Kristijan Milic competently tells two parallel stories of 20th-century bloodshed in Bosnia that illustrate the sickening sameness of war, be it in 1943 or 1993. Based on a popular novel of the same name by Josip Mlakic, storyline presupposes a knowledge of the area’s complicated history. Due in Croatian hardtops in September, the pic is unlikely to travel outside the region, excepting minor fests and national cinema events.
Opening epigram by former Yugoslavia’s Nobel-winning writer Ivo Andric — “We are all dead, only buried sequentially” — sets an appropriately fatalistic tone.
Pic first introduces a group of HVO (Bosnian Croat) soldiers during the 1993 Bosnian-Croatian conflict. Shooting at invisible enemies as they make their way through dark forests and over haunted “cemetery hill,” they traverse the same territory as the fighters in the ’43 narrative.
Latter are a group of Domobrans (ill-prepared conscripts called up by what was then the Croat Independent State, which included Bosnian Muslims) serving under the nasty Ustasha (an ultra-nationalist paramilitary group) captain, and fighting against (mostly Serbian) communist partisans.
Further linking the two tales, the last surviving Domobran Martin is the grandfather of Tomo, the most sympathetic HVO squaddie (Filip Sovagovic essays both characters). A couple other thesps play smaller roles in both time periods.
Pic’s cemetery climax brings both storylines together in a haunting but not surprising way.
Shot in sepia tones, with camera angles giving the men a heroic aura, martial music on the soundtrack and slow, sonorous dialogue delivery, the ’43 scenes gently send up the region’s history of partisan films.
Per director Milic, Walter Hill’s “Southern Comfort” and Vietnam War films influenced the style of the ultra-macho, amoral ’93 sequences. Dialogue here contains a distressing number of dehumanizing ethnic slurs common to the time.
As far as characters are concerned, all the stereotypes of the war genre are present and accounted for, including the nervous young recruit, bullying joker, amoral psycho and mysterious, ultra-competent he-man. Thesps, particularly Velibor Topic as killing machine Vielli, play their one-dimensional parts with gusto.
Tech credits are mostly slick, although the ghostly special effects are a bit cheesy. Kudos to lensers Dragan Markovic and Mirko Pivcevic, who did a fine job on a pic that’s 90% exteriors, and to Ivica Drnic, Damir Valincic and Igor Fabris for their heart-thumping soundscape.
Pic won eight awards at the Pula Film Festival, including film and director.