Far away, behind the darkened Kosovan hills, bombs fall, sending up columns of sparks into the dusky sky. The rumble and crackle sounds out a moment later, and it’s indicative of Serbian director Ognjen Glavonić’s ruthlessly rigorous approach to his austere debut fiction feature: The fireworks are never in the foreground. Instead, we follow a small truck wending its way down the hillside. Inside a motley collection of surly men, including Vlada (powerful Croatian actor Leon Lučev, recently seen in Alen Drljević’s excellent “Men Don’t Cry”) avoid each other’s eyes, bicker about money and take brief naps, despite the jolting, against windows that reflect burning buildings and leafless trees. This is Kosovo in 1999, when the NATO bombing campaign has been going on so long that it’s become part of everyday life, as unremarkable as an extended spell of bad weather.
When they finally disembark, the men are each assigned a sealed truck to drive to Belgrade. Vlada’s vehicle is dirty white, little bigger than a van. Its doors are sealed, and when a police check occurs en route, Vlada produces a piece of paper that allows him to continue on without opening it up for inspection. The shadiness of the enterprise is literal as well as figurative, cloaked in the crepuscular grays and browns of Tatjana Krstevski’s impeccably vérité, low-contrast, handheld camerawork. But there is clearly official sanction behind whatever it is Vlada’s involved in.
This thriller-ish setup, in which Vlada must journey through treacherous territory to deliver a sensitive load, makes obvious reference to Henri-Georges Clouzot’s classic “The Wages of Fear” (or William Friedkin’s remake, “Sorcerer,” if you prefer). But after the initial drama of Vlada discovering his route is impassable due to a blocked bridge, it unfolds very differently, as a willful anti-thriller. In Spartan, scoreless long takes, usually in the cab of the truck, with Vlada pensively smoking and dull landscapes rolling by, a minutely calibrated story unfolds not through ratcheting tension or life-and-death stakes but through an accretion of tiny, humdrum moments — the rolling of a marble, the sparking of an unreliable flint on an old engraved lighter, the odd detail of a lollipop stuck in a stray dog’s fur.
Vlada picks up a young hitchhiker (Pavle Čemerikić), makes a couple of rest stops, phones his wife, who we glean has been having some hospital tests, and has his cigarettes and lighter nicked from the briefly unattended cab. One can hardly call this the stuff of high drama, but it lulls us into a rhythm similar to Vlada’s own, as the longueurs of life on the road give him and us ample time for brooding. Vlada doesn’t know what his cargo is, but does he suspect? Is it possible to locate the exact moment at which Vlada’s plausible deniability of his role in an unfathomable evil evaporates?
There are pointed digressions. We follow the hitchhiker after he leaves the truck and hangs out in a deserted playground, where we notice his initials carved on the swing set. We pick up with the two petty thieves, also kids, as they examine Vlada’s lighter. And later, in the most loquacious scene in the whole film, Vlada tells his son (Ivan Lučev) a story about his own father’s experience of war. Each generation steals from the last and bequeaths to the next, but in this historically turbulent region, part of that legacy is war. And with war comes remembrance, or in the case of the atrocity that is the structuring absence of “The Load,” willful forgetfulness.
Those familiar with Glavonić’s last film, the feature documentary “Depth Two,” will know that he is profoundly concerned with forcing his homeland to reckon with sins that have remained ignored for decades, and they’ll know the incident to which “The Load” alludes. But his approach here is so subtle and withholding that it might be possible for those not aware of this historical event to miss the full extent of the horror so obliquely outlined. It requires a degree of commitment on the part of the viewer to join the sparsely placed dots of Glavonić’s harshly intelligent and uncompromisingly spare story, especially when the picture they form is so harrowing.
But the elements that frustrate can also devastate. It is in the very banality of this day in the life of a Serbian trucker that this impressive new filmmaker illuminates a painful truth that inculpates more of us than we’d like to believe: Ignorance of atrocity, whether it’s an effort of will like Vlada’s, or inadvertent like the younger generation’s, does not make you innocent of it.