Dir: Kristijan Milic. Bosnia-Herzegovina/Croatia, 2007. 90 mins.
The winner of theGrand Prixat The 54th Pula Film Festival,garnering seven awards in total (including best picture and director), The Living and the Dead is a striking examination of war-fever, unadulterated and Balkan-style. Kristijan Milic's debut film will strike a familiar chordwith its own home-territories and native audiences. It will also, most probably, rub salt into national wounds which have barely begun to heal.
A tough item to market, given the lack of any obvious directorial sympathy towards its characters, its best prospectsremain withlikeminded international festivals; many of them are already standing in line to programme it, with probable interest from politically inclined art cinema programmers.
Based on a Josef Mlakic novel (with the author co-operating on the script), Milic's picture grimly portrays mayhem and violence as inseparable from everyday life in the Balkans; that's the way it has always been and nothing seems to promise a better future. There is no real attempt in the film to explain or analyze this condition. Subscribing to such a downbeat vision of the world, which, by the way, could be easily translocatedto any number of similar hotspots around the world, may look one-sided to some. But events in the recent past might after all support Milic's uncompromising position.
The picturefirst unfoldsback in 1993, in the midst of the modern Bosnian war, as a Croat platoon folds back to its own position through enemy territory. But no sooner are the soldiers themselves introduced, the action jumps back 50 years, to 1943 and WWII, when another Croat unit is supposed to cover exactly the same territory, and face down very similar dangers.
For the rest of the film, the two plots unfold on parallel lines in an almost identical manner. There isn't much difference, except for uniforms and weapons, in either the incidents or their bloody outcomes. Few characters stand out on their own; this is first and foremost an action-driven ensemble piece. Since the film's motto, an Ivo Andric quotation, says 'we are all dead, just waiting to be buried', it is pretty evident where both these stories are going. Asingle survivor (played by the same actor, Filip Sovagovic) is left in each case to tell the story.
The concept of 'war is hell', on which the entire affair is based, is raised here to an almost abstract level. The missions of the two separate units, fifty years apart, are basically irrelevant and the only urgency felt in the film is moving forward rather than reaching a goal. Human life is reduced to non-existent value, the sheer vicious pleasure of killing is a reward in itself, and it is only a matter of time until the greenhorns, squeezing the trigger every time they panic, will eventually reveal in it. As for the war itself, it is never discussed.
What counts are the patterns repeated, whether they are walking through a ravaged village whose inhabitants have been massacred, the setting fire to a remote wooden shack after shooting the people in it, the stalking and being stalked in the woods, or the generalised battling past-and-present phantoms in brief nightmare sequences which break through every now and again.
The 1993 episode, longer than the WWII one, takes some time to develop the absurdity and madness which drives these soldiers to shoot to kill the same people they have grown up with; people who were once sitting next to them in school, who shared their drinks in the same bars, and then, overnight, became impersonal and accursed infidels to be pitilessly butchered.
Though Milic launched his project in 2005, only to be delayed by an actor's unexpected leave of absence for almost two years, his film preserves a homogenous look, each separate step in these focused journeys to death carefully adorned with all the trimmings and cliches of classic war movies. It's tense, well shot, competently cut and adequately violent. There isn't much mourning for the dead, since the audience never gets close to any of the characters - a distinct shortcoming considering the anti-war message the film attempts to convey.
Efficiently cast, with little dramatic development in each individual role, it's the interaction between actors which really counts here rather than any individual performances; however Velibor Topic's version of an uncompromising human war machine stands out in the rumble.
Mainframe Productions - Croatia
Olimp Productions - Croatia
Porta Productions - Bosnia
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