A gentle chastisement for the scant remembrance in Serbia of its role in the Holocaust, Goran Paskaljevic’s “When Day Breaks” is one of its veteran helmer’s most subdued and conventional films, arguably to a fault. This fictive tale of a retired professor stunned to learn he’s the son of Jewish concentration camp victims has an inherent thematic poignancy, but the somewhat pokey, stilted way it plays out muffles emotional impact. The pic should earn a healthy fest tour and some specialty placements, but it’s most suited to broadcast slots.
A modest, soft-spoken man in an increasingly brash world, widowed music professor Misha (Mustafa Nadarevic) is rattled when he’s given a box recently discovered buried at a construction site that reveals a nearly 70-year-old secret: He’s not the child of the farmers who raised him as their own, but rather of their friends, a Jewish couple who turned the toddler over for safekeeping before perishing under Nazi occupation. His adopted parents and “brother” wanted to spare him the anguish of knowing the details of his parents’ death.
Misha isn’t angry at them, but he’s appalled that this gruesome chapter in history — thousands of Jews, gypsies and political prisoners were killed — has been almost completely forgotten among his countrymen. As the box contained an original composition by his musician father, he determines he’ll stage an honorary concert debuting it at the unmarked former site of a camp, in conjunction with a local synagogue’s annual memorial for the dead.
To his dismay, the woman who’s replaced him as a choirmaster, a friend who was once a famous singer, and even his own successful conductor son all decline to participate when asked. But their decisions fall flat as betrayals, since Misha hasn’t bothered to explain to them the concert’s personal significance. Nevertheless, the piece is ultimately heard, thanks in large part to players who are Roma, a minority that the pic makes clear still suffers racist abuse in Serbia today.
Mostly a series of talky one-on-ones between Misha and those he visits, “When Day Breaks” is earnest but tepid, with some awkward performances and narrative gaps. Given the subject matter, its respectable, muted drama simply ought to have a more powerful impact than it delivers. Packaging is polished.