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No Man's Land

movie reviewmovie reviewmovie review out of 4 Movie Review: No Man's Land

Starring: Branko Djuric, Rene Bitorajac
Director: Danis Tanovic
Rated: R
RunTime: 98 Minutes
Release Date: December 2001
Genres: Foreign, Suspense, War

*Also starring: Simon Callow, Katrin Cartlidge, Georges Siatidis, Filip Sovagovic

Review by Edward Johnson-Ott
3 stars out of 4

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

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