Cinema Signal:

. "No Man's Land"

In a superb feature debut, writer-director Danis Tanovic has brought us what is probably the best anti-war film since "Johnny Got His Gun" with a powerful demonstration of how it boils down to individual combatants whose personalities and character are recognizable amidst the fears and terrors of warfare. The achievement is all the more pronounced in that its canvas is a recent conflict, one that hasn't had much film treatment, the one between the Serbs and Croatians, circa 1993. It's textbook on modern war with the participation of the UN and their control of the headlines, with the media focusing world attention on every skirmish or development.

The story opens on a squad of Bosnian men making their way into the battlefield on a fog shrouded night. They joke about the competency of their squad leader and how he's probably taking them behind enemy lines. They decide to halt where they are in order to sleep and to see where they are under daylight. When dawn comes the fog has lifted and, their worst fears realized, a Serbian tank appears, shooting them all as they scatter away.

Not all of them are mortally wounded, however, and Chiki (Branko Djuric) finds his way to a deserted trench which turns out to be a temporarily neutral area between parallel trenches that mark out the front lines. First tending to his wounds, then to the acquisition of cigarettes, he discovers the body of one of his comrades, Cera (Filip Sovagovic). He's stunned by the sudden arrival of two Serbs checking the trench for survivors. Leaving his gun on the other side of the trench Chiki rushes inside a command post to hide.

Safely concealed in the cabin, he listens to the two Serbs outside. One is a battle hardened veteran, the other, Nino (Rene Bitorajac), a recent recruit who is with his superior to learn military techniques. The two leave the area briefly to check out the trench. Chiki seizes the opportunity to retrieve his rifle and quickly returns to his hiding place.

The two Serbs return to the command area of the trench outside the cabin and the veteran decides to lay a spring mine under Cera's body, the effect of which will be deadly to the first man that moves it and anyone nearby. Then, they discover the missing rifle. Knowing he's about to be discovered, Chiki springs out of the cabin and shoots the two Serbs, killing the veteran and wounding Nino in the stomach.

Soon thereafter, Cera moans. Realizing that his friend is alive, Chiki jumps on him to prevent any movement and the demolition of the bomb under him. In a series of exchanging upper hands, Chiki and Nino, enemies, realize that, for their survival they must bring in outside help and devise unexpected methods to attract attention by the warring factions. Ultimately the UN's UNPROFOR soldiers led by a French peacekeeper, a relentless British reporter, a German bomb expert and various bumbling cadre of the UN get involved, revealing the peculiarities of modern war where strategy is more concerned with politics, coalitions and publicity than troop movements.

There is much that is ironic and humorous in how this drama unfolds but deadly serious in the outcomes, all the more convincing in its realism. The balance of elements is the work of a unique sensibility. Director Tanovic (who also contributed the score) has found an extraordinary and richly satiric way to combine unerring character development with a deceivingly light approach to the harshness of war without compromising or soft-pedaling the issues, particularly the personal ones. It's an astounding and singular piece of work, fully deserving of Cannes' Palmes d'Or as well as many other awards yet to be considered.

Steven Speilberg, are you taking notes?

The only part of this that we've seen before -- over and over -- is the behavior of the media and the military's frustration over handling them without compromising its position and intentions. It's been seen so many times and in so many contexts, it's a cliche, and the way this element is interwoven into such fresh material doesn't afford it new insights except, perhaps, to illustrate the ludicrous trade-offs and ironies of the modern battlefield.

We have Jane Livingstone (Katrin Cartlidge) the relentless field reporter poking her microphone in everyone's face, making deals with field officers and non-coms alike, and we have the news director telling her she needs to do more. But, I'm inclined to forgive it. Media presence was truly part of this war and the way it's presented in this context by a documentarian of the conflict may not be a dramatic fabrication. If it is, it's in the service of a finely observed piece of stress and behavior.

Besides his own work, Tanovic's casting is outstanding, first and foremost in the complex and sensitive nature of Djuric as he plays Chiki. We love this guy through all his emotional turns and survival needs and want to see more of this fine actor soon.

Rated U, for Unexpected.

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                                      ~~  Jules Brenner  

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Nino and Chiki in their foxhole
in "No Man's Land"
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