Perhaps the most pernicious myth peddled about war is that it is cathartic. It may result in the redrawing of national borders or even the establishment of self-determining nations organized roughly along ethnic and cultural lines. But as debut director Alen Drljević’s powerful, punchy “Men Don’t Cry” persuades, for many of its participants, war does not represent the culmination of historical tensions so that old enmities can be resolved once and for all. For many, it’s a beginning — the start of a broken life. For the characters in his film, representing all sides in the complex, multifaceted drawn-out series of conflicts in the former Yugoslavia, there was nothing purifying or simplifying about the war: on the contrary, it was where they learned to hate themselves as much as their putative enemies.
“The war ended 20 years ago, but not for you,” says Ivan (Sebastian Cavazza), the handsome Slovenian group therapist running this counseling workshop in the Bosnian mountains. Indeed, like walking wounded, the men stumble through the empty corridors and shuttered bars of this no man’s land — a hotel that’s otherwise closed up for the off-season. Whether engaging in faintly ridiculous team-building trust exercises, coming to blows, forging unlikely friendships or exchanging flinty looks across silent breakfast tables, the Serbs, Croats and Bosnians, secular and religious, Christian and Muslim, find that the one thing they share is deep, soul-scorching shame. All of them learned things about themselves in that war that they’d rather not have known, and all of them are contending with how far from the masculine ideals of strength, stoicism, bravery and self-reliance they feel they have fallen.
There are some who bear physical as well as psychological wounds: one man has lost a leg; another, the youthful Bosnian Jasmin (Boris Ler) is in a wheelchair. He’s no longer a believer, but his gnomelike compatriot Merim (Emir Hadžihafizbegović) is a devout Muslim. Which means Merim does not participate in the illicit drinking that goes on late at night when the bearlike Serb Miki (Boris Isaković) scores some homemade hooch from the hotel manager (Izudin Bajrović) and gets roaring drunk with the Croatian Valentin (Leon Lučev).
Drljević and Zoran Solomun’s dense script is discursive, but never didactic, and the lightning-rod performances from the regionally well-known pan-Balkan cast keep it deeply engrossing. Even moments that could have felt schematic are focused and believable, such as the role-playing game in which each of the men gets to watch their most scarring incident replayed by the others, only this time with the ending they wish for. Even within so large an ensemble, in which tangled lines of alliance and suspicion crisscross every interaction, Drljević unerringly knows the dramatic heart of each scene.
Erol Zubčević’s calm, polished photography is an unobtrusive boon: his compositions make elegant use of the warm-toned yet melancholy, spooky interiors (and using an out-of-season hotel as a representation of a kind of limbo is inspired). Within these frames, the various hierarchies are subtly evoked and shown to be fluid — a complex dynamic, in which Miki and Valentin’s relationship gradually emerges as the most potent, especially following Miki’s confession of a war crime so horrible that although the others empathize, Valentin cannot forgive him.
“Men Don’t Cry” is not only an insightful investigation into the mechanics of guilt and the group dynamic. As the title suggests, the film is also a critique of a culture of rigid machismo that contributes to their shared misery. Whether lasciviously hitting on a waitress at the breakfast table, or watching amateur porn on a cellphone during a visit to a nearby War Memorial, or describing a relationship with an overbearing mother, or outlining the sad process by which PTSD led inevitably to the failure of a marriage, the dysfunction of male/female relationships provides subtle but compelling subtext.
A few of the men do experience a kind of therapeutic epiphany at some point, but Drljević is careful not to present the well-intentioned workshop as an unambiguous good: In a couple of instances, including that of an early walkout and a late dramatic twist, the sessions proves too much to bear and may actually entrench some of the participants even more firmly in their prejudices or trap them more thoroughly in their previously repressed pasts. But there’s also the helpless acknowledgement that while talking things out may be a flawed and sometimes ineffective or even counterproductive therapy for wartime trauma, it’s all we’ve got as a means of trying to rescue the men who may have survived but never truly came home.