“Welcome to Hell,” reads a piece of wall graffiti in an unspecified Balkan territory, though what we see onscreen feels more like a dry, over-tilled stretch of seriocomic purgatory in “A Perfect Day.” Taking stock of a nation’s war wounds through an outsider’s lens, this first English-language effort from Spanish director Fernando Leon de Aranoa casts a nicely jaundiced eye on five aid workers, struggling and mostly failing to do some badly needed clean-up work toward the end of the mid-’90s conflict. But despite the appreciably restrained, low-key approach, the character-driven humor never finds a proper groove in what amounts to a so-so retread of earlier mid-conflict comedies like “MASH” and “The Hunting Party.” Still, the prominent cast names of Benicio Del Toro and Tim Robbins will ensure additional festival duty and limited arthouse exposure.
Leon de Aranoa has proven no stranger to melding gritty social realism and crowd-pleasing entertainment in his Spanish-language films like “Barrio” (1998), “Mondays in the Sun” (2002) and “Princesas” (2005), and he attempts something similar on a more ambitiously commercial scale here, to sporadically engaging effect. The setting is “somewhere in the Balkans” in 1995: The fighting has wound down and peace talks have begun, though as is made clear by Leon de Aranoa’s script (based on Paula Farias’ novel “Dejarse llover,” and written in collaboration with Diego Farias), even an official end to the conflict means a host of fresh crises in the war-ravaged region.
The crisis that drives “A Perfect Day” over its roughly 24-hour span is the discovery of a man’s corpse in a well, contaminating one of the few precious water sources available to nearby villagers. Mambru (Del Toro) and Damir (Fedja Stukan), who work for a humanitarian NGO called Aid Across Borders, are trying to hoist the body out of the well as the film opens, but the rope quickly snaps and the corpse falls back into the water, where it will continue to fester and pollute. It’s a blunt but effective metaphor for a situation where violence, chaos and cynicism seem to hold permanent sway over residents and visitors alike, and where every attempt to restore order inevitably yields a struggle of near-Sisyphean proportions.
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Joined by their colleagues Sophie (Melanie Thierry) and B (Robbins), Mambru and Damir head to a briefing at a nearby United Nations base, where untested, idealistic newcomer Sophie urges the U.N. to retrieve the body and decontaminate the well. When it becomes clear the situation isn’t considered a priority, it falls to the ragtag Aid Across Borders crew to try again, which turns out to be much easier said than done: The locals are distrustful and unhelpful; finding a strong-enough length of rope becomes a difficult quest in itself; and land mines are a constant threat as the workers navigate winding roads over miles of mountainous desert terrain (well lensed in crisp, scenic digital images by d.p. Alex Catalan, with Spanish locations including Granada, Malaga and Cuenca ably standing in for the Balkans). One of the film’s running gags/tension generators finds our heroes facing a dead cow in their path — a carefully planted piece of roadkill, per B, meant to divert cars in a potentially explosive direction.
Under these impossible circumstances — where bureaucratic delays keep people from doing their jobs, and even the best intentions have a way of going awry — it’s no surprise that humor becomes a crucial coping mechanism here, even if “A Perfect Day” never manages to be as fresh, funny or clever as it seems to think it is. Robbins’ loud-mouthed B serves as the team’s designated comic relief, whether he’s cracking wise in front of a visibly annoyed Sophie or joshing Mambru about his unresolved romantic history with Katya (Olga Kurylenko), the newest and most attractive member of their unit. The latter subplot is the sort of overly movie-ish distraction that seems particularly ill served by the film’s general commitment to verisimilitude. It also strains to create some sense of meaningful character interaction in an ensemble that never quite achieves the free-flowing comic rhythms and laid-back, neo-Hawksian chemistry they’re aiming for.
Perhaps aware of the inherently problematic device of looking at an overseas conflict strictly through a Western do-gooder perspective, the filmmakers take care to integrate the plight of locals and refugees in as realistic a manner as possible — whether it’s the old farming woman who has developed her own astute way of steering clear of land mines, or, in the film’s most suspenseful and sobering setpiece, a trip to an abandoned neighborhood that has been bombed beyond recognition (convincingly realized by production designer Cesar Macarron). In a subplot that walks a perilously thin line between sentimental calculation and cultural insight, Mambru befriends a local boy (fine newcomer Eldar Residovic) whose soccer ball has been taken away by gun-toting bullies, and who becomes a sort of pint-sized guide to the workers as they try to go about their job.
By the end, thanks to Leon de Aranoa’s steady direction and the actors’ slow-building character work, “A Perfect Day” manages to coalesce into a reasonably tough-minded, compassionate vision of the difficulties and rewards of trying to do the right thing in an intractable situation, though the film has to overcome more than a few flat, indolent stretches to get there. Providing the strongest emotional hook in the solid ensemble is Del Toro (also featured in the concurrent Cannes titles “Sicario” and “The Little Prince”), his magnetism largely undimmed despite his dirt-caked, war-rumpled appearance. Technical contributions are topnotch, though the frequent use of pop/rock tunes (like the Eurythmics’ never-unwelcome cover of “Sweet Dreams”) as connective tissue feel typical of the movie’s frequent slides into overly conventional and familiar territory.