Dir: Damjan Kozole. Slovenia. 2003. 87 mins.

Three films in competition at this year's Berlin dealt with the trade in illegal immigrants towards the European Union: Michael Winterbottom's Golden Bear winner In This World; FIPRESCI prize winner Distant Lights (Lichter), by German director Hans-Christian Schmid; and this small but well-crafted Slovenian film. While in its structure, photography and character development, Spare Parts is the most conventional of the three, it is the only one of the trio to see the traffic almost entirely from the smugglers' point of view. Nor is its patina of ordinariness a bad thing, placing the subject within the bounds of everyday desperation and underlining the fact that most of these 'evil' people-runners are merely hard-up chancers exploiting a demand. Downbeat but oddly likeable, Spare Parts might do better business on the European arthouse circuit than its rather muted Berlinale competition reception would suggest.

Krsko is a down-and-out industrial town in southern Slovenia, known mainly for its nuclear power plant which - as archive footage ironically informs the audience - was inaugurated by President Tito in 1974. The municipal cemetery and the municipal swimming pool both lie within the shadow of the cooling towers; so does the speedway track, which furnishes a running subplot.

Ludvik (Musevski), a former speedway champion, is now a bitter widower with a pot-belly. Each night, he drives a vanload of refugees across to the Italian border - a few of the estimated 300 people who attempt to cross illegally between Slovenia and Italy every day. In need of a helping hand, he takes on the young and fresh-faced Rudi (Kovacic), who is confronted with a moral dilemma on the very first night when his fellow smugglers offer a desperate Macedonian girl money in return for sexual favours.

The film follows the everyday routine of the smuggling trade, which can make even the suffocation of an African family in a cramped car boot into little more than an unfortunate work-related incident. It also traces the gradual toughening up of Rudi until the day when he becomes his own boss, and goes to the speedway track in his turn to scout for an apprentice.

Kozole's solid characterisation succeeds in winning the audience over to this dour but oddly watchable coming-of-age tale, whose potentially depressing message is redeemed by its refusal to paint the world black and white. It also demonstrates how a grudging father-son relationship can develop in the midst of such a squalid trade.

Radislav Jovanov-Gonzo's cinematography brings out the greyness and lack of substance of this leatherette world, made up of roadside diners, warehouse dormitories and hotel rooms with thin partition walls; it only attempts poetry in some of the night border-crossing scenes, where light falls in strong chiaroscuro on faces, jackets and Nike ticks. Igor Leonardi's soundtrack provides decent support, mixing long orchestral chords with ethno-Arab twangs.

Prod co: E-Motion Film
Co prod:
RTV Slovenija
Int'l sales:
Danijel Hocevar
Radislav Jovanov-Gonzo
Prod des:
Ursa Loboda
Ed: Andrija Zafranovic
Igor Leonardi
Main cast:
Peter Musevski, Aljosa Kovacic, Aleksandra Balmazovic, Primoz Petkovsek, Valter Dragan, Vladimir Vlaskalic, Verica Nedeska