After causing a sensation at last year's Cannes Film Festival, where it
won the Best Screenplay prize for writer/director Danis Tanovic, "No
Man's Land" is now up for a Best Foreign Film Oscar at the upcoming
Academy Awards. It deserves the accolades. The movie is a tightly
constructed, chilling drama with welcome doses of gallows humor. Had I
seen it in time, it most certainly would have had a place high on my 10
Best Movies of 2001 list.
I've frontloaded this review with positives in the hope that you will
see "No Man's Land" despite the fact that it's subtitled. I realize that
many people loath subtitles, but the production, in Bosnian, French and
English, is more than worth the hassle.
Set in 1993 war-torn Bosnia, the story begins with a group of soldiers
lost in the fog. The tired men fall asleep, only to be awakened at dawn
by Serbian gunfire. Ciki (Branko Duric) saves himself by diving into a
trench in the middle of this no man's land. Hours later, from his hiding
space, he spots a pair of Serbs looking for survivors.
The elder of the two (Mustafa Nadarevic) pauses to roll over the body of
one of Ciki's fallen comrades and dig a small hole in the dirt with his
hands. He plants a bomb, rolls the body onto it and explains to the
younger soldier that the weight of the corpse has set the bomb and, when
the enemy picks up the body, the device will explode, sending a couple
of thousand lethal bearings in all directions.
Shortly after, they discover Ciki, who shoots and kills the older
soldier, resulting in a standoff between him and Nino (Rene Bitorajac),
the jittery surviving Serb. Their furious exchange of words is
interrupted when the corpse begins to stir. It turns out that Ciki's
fellow soldier Cera (Filip Sovagovic) had merely been unconscious. "No
Man's Land" centers on this insane dynamic, with Ciki and Nino vying for
control while Cera holds perfectly still, knowing that the slightest
movement will set off the bomb beneath him and kill all three men.
Tanovic's screenplay is very smart, adding nuance to the characters
without ever becoming pretentious or preachy. Whether viewed as a
microcosm of the Bosnian war, a metaphor about war in general or simply
as a thriller about three men stuck in a nightmare, "No Man's Land"
delivers. Prior to this, his first feature, Danis Tanovic worked as a
war documentarian during the Bosnian conflict. Clearly, he paid close
attention to the lunacy he was recording.
Minutes turn to hours and the enemies begin to get to know each other,
but their shared humanity is no match for their blinding hatred.
Meanwhile, the commanders from both sides call for help from U.N.
peacekeeping forces. The media gets involved as well and soon, the
circus outside the trench threatens to dwarf the men within. Everyone
has his or her own agenda, from the French sergeant (Georges Siatidis)
who detests the U.N. policy of neutrality to the ambitious CNN-style
reporter (Katrin Cartlidge) striving to increase her own celebrity.
Everybody that is, except for a key UN official (Simon Callow) who only
wants to be left alone with the beautiful women in his office.
As Tanovic widens his scope to include the outsiders, the farcical
aspect of his story becomes a bit more pronounced, at times too much so.
Luckily, the gravity of the three soldiers' situation takes center stage
again as the story heads towards its stunning conclusion. I doubt I will
ever forget the closing image of "No Man's Land."
Or the rest of it, for that matter.
Copyright © 2002 Edward Johnson-Ott