Ingrained Serbo-Croat hatreds cause ongoing pain across three decades and three storylines in Dalibor Matanic’s strongest film to date, “The High Sun.” Using the same talented actors to represent different characters in the trio of narratives, the helmer engages with love across ethnic divides, from doomed to traumatized to hesitantly optimistic. For international cinephiles, the main selling point will be the filmmaking: It’s handsomely mounted and expertly edited, offering rewards quite apart from the too cliched but well-meaning script. “Sun” could become Matanic’s most popular film at home, provided local auds don’t stay away from war-themed topics; limited Euro theatrical exposure is also likely after fest play.
Two villages in sun-drenched late summer — one Croatian, the other Serbian. It’s 1991, and tensions between the two communities are high, with everyone on edge in anticipation of that one spark that will set everything aflame. Serbian Jelena (Tihana Lazovic) and Croatian Ivan (Goran Markovic) soak up the rays lakeside, her more forceful personality well on display. They’re preparing to escape the next day to Zagreb, where family pressures aren’t so toxic, but when her seething brother Sasha (Dado Cosic) gets wind of the plans, he violently tries to stop them.
The drama shifts to 2001, and while the locale is the same, a montage of bombed and ransacked houses reveals the war’s severe physical scars. Natasha (Lazovic) and her mother (Nives Ivankovic) are equally shattered, traumatized by the loss of loved ones as they return to their shell of a home. While Mom is emotional, Natasha is icy, turning aggressively flinty when her mother hires Croatian handyman Ante (Markovic) to help make the house livable. Psychologically wounded and roiling in suppressed sexual tension, these two are bound to clash.
Next, it’s 2011, and memories of the war have barely faded. College boy Luka (Markovic) reluctantly drives from the city with his buddy Ivno (Stipe Radoja) to attend a rave in their village. Luka hasn’t been back for a while, and though he pays his depressed parents a visit, he doesn’t disguise his resentment or his self-anger. The reason becomes clear when he rings the bell of Marija (Lazovic), his Serbian ex, whom he abandoned when she was pregnant with their son.
Of course, Romeo-and-Juliet romances have been around much longer than Shakespeare, and the tale (unfortunately) remains relevant. Making it emotionally compelling, however is the hard part, requiring a heightened degree of likability plus enough originality to give the universal story new life. Matanic (“Mother of Asphalt”) succeeds in the first section, the best of the trio, thanks to the lovers’ fresh appeal and youthful playfulness. While Sasha’s unsubtle rage and a senile granny are stock figures, Jelena and Ivan have a potency that transcends the formula.
The same can’t be said for the Natasha and Ante pairing, where her antagonistic, annoying behavior quickly becomes tiresome, notwithstanding sympathy for her trauma. In the final coupling, emotional investment has waned, although younger auds may identify most with the “kids going to a rave” narrative; also, bringing the action forward to the near-present makes sense in terms of identifying lingering antagonisms as well as offering the possibility of hope for the future.
Leads Lazovic and Markovic bring subtle differences to each character, making every one an individual, though throughout her roles demonstrate stronger personalities than his. Both are especially fine at conveying the physicality of each figure, their bodies a mass of tension.
Visuals are a standout, with lenser Marko Brdar (“A Trip”) making excellent use of widescreen in visually arresting images, from a little purple flower offering a point of color in a green and straw semi-closeup, to the sensuality of a bead of sweat on the back of Lazovic’s neck (although there’s a little too much back-of-the-head in the first section). Establishing shots of the beautiful hilly landscape convey the sense that no matter how much humans destroy, the natural world will remain, beckoning with its eternal tranquility.
Tomislav Pavlic’s editing is praiseworthy, particularly in the 1991 segment, when he establishes a rhythm between medium and long shots that builds for maximum potency. Also noteworthy is the sound design, nicely supporting Pavlic’s cutting.