By David Hudson
January 2, 2005 - 1:55 PM PST
Vinko Bresan (that's him on the right) says that the novel Alabaster Sheep, on which his new film Svjedoci (Witnesses) is based, tells its story straight. A linear narrative, in other words, and I can't help but think his film would be many times stronger if he'd followed that line. But he's chosen instead to look at a series of events as if they were laid out on a map; he'll tap his pointer here, then there and revisit a handful of spots too many times far too long with too little new information gained to make the going back again worthwhile. When done well, when done for a reason better than simply for novelty's sake (particularly now that the novelty has well worn off), disjointed narratives can do wonders; but if they don't, they can literally tear what might otherwise have been a fine film to pieces.
That said, some of Bresan's formalistic choices are impressive. The opening shot, for example, which clocks at just a few seconds under six minutes and, like the most famous shot of its kind, the one that opens Touch of Evil, gives us a sense several very different things going on at the same time within a relatively limited geographical space. We know immediately that there's a war on - tanks rumble around a town square - and we know that someone has died - a man is laid out in his coffin in the room of one small house - and that someone else might soon - a car with three very quiet, very angry young men lurks the narrow streets of a Croatian town. The murder indeed happens, and soon, we're snipping here and there and learning in bits and pieces why; and that the life of a little girl, a witness, is at stake.
There are individual scenes and set-ups that are quite powerful in their evocation of the everyday effects of the war between the Croats and the Serbs in the early 90s, the war that moved like an infection from one piece of former Yugoslavia to the next throughout that decade. But each time we go back to the scene of the crime, hear the same siren and the same lines from the investigator, that power is defused and it takes too long for an 88-minute film for it to accumulate again (only, of course, to be defused again a few minutes later).
Bresan's intention is to draw attention in Croatia to a subject few want to think about there, namely, the war crimes committed during that war. On both sides. Facing them, he argues, will be the first step towards real reconciliation, which is why he looks forward to the film opening in Croatia on February 25, why he was glad to see it play at the Belgrade film festival and, to a certain degree, why he cast a Serb to play the staunchly pro-Croatian mother of two brothers, the younger one who commits the crime and the older one who must fix it.
John Boorman has been pondering similar issues. Country of My Skull is a noble endeavor that very unfortunately falls flat. Two reporters, Anna (Juliette Binoche) and Langston (Samuel L. Jackson), are assigned to cover the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Despite her father's objection to the end of Apartheid, Anna, who's also a poet, by the way, sees great hope and possibility in the Commission; Langston, sent over by the Washington Post, would rather see the whites get what's coming to them. They meet, they argue, and guess what. But the affair can't last; we can see that coming, too.
The film has its moments, but they are few and far between. About the worst that can be said about the film is that it's particularly the moments in which we are supposed to be deeply moved that seem the most contrived, even occasionally embarrassing. Because the crimes, of course, were real and were truly horrible, but Boorman tries to work our tear glands like faucets. Black South Africans tell their stories to the Commission; the whites, if they tell the whole truth about what they did and can prove that they were following orders can ask for and receive amnesty. Boorman is right to say, as he did today, that this is probably the most effective way to deal with the aftermath once the shooting stops (if it ever does) in places like Northern Ireland and the Middle East; if only his film could have convincingly shown how and why rather than take a sort of TV movie plot-by-numbers approach.
The best thing that can be said about the film (and a few other films as well) is Juliette Binoche. She's somehow found a character in this screenplay and nurtured it to life, all on her own, seemingly; Jackson, on the other hand, doesn't seem to be on either her wavelength or Boorman's. Country is a film you wish would work, would go out into the world and let a thousand Commissions bloom, but it's not too long after the opening credits that you realize you're going to have to settle for a lot less.
After last night's circus of a press conference with Jack Nicholson and Diane Keaton, you could easily have expected a minor replay this evening when Cate Blanchett appeared with Ron Howard to talk about The Missing. Instead, though the press room was just as jammed (well, almost), it was one of the calmest, most collected and downright smartest press conferences the Berlinale has seen in a long while.
No matter what you might think of Howard as a director, this is a decent guy who clearly works very hard to do the best he can. He does his homework and gets it in on time. Ask him a question about the representation of the Apaches in The Missing - go ahead, he's prepared. Besides reading up a storm, of course, he worked with an anthropologist, spoke with Apache elders and went over the screenplay with them with a fine-toothed comb. He'll recognize a debt to The Searchers, of course, but will assure you he didn't consciously make his movie as an hommage; besides, his favorite John Ford is My Darling Clementine.
And then Cate Blanchett. It's not too many actors who'll take a few minutes to expound on their theories of one of the essential differences between American and Australian culture (very briefly, whites in North America captured the center of their continent but whites in Australia have failed every time they've tried). Or talk at length about what they gleaned from the diaries of pioneer women for their character. And so on. Fortunately, only one questioner brought up the cold hard fact that she was absolutely stunning this evening. Though that's what the entire room was thinking.
Preview, Daybreak, Intimate Strangers.
Witnesses, Country of My Skull, The Missing.Beautiful Country, Hands, Embrace, Primo, Next Life.
Nightsongs, Head On, Sunset, Maria, Final, Samaria, Weeping.
Kiss, Triple Agent, 20:30:40, 25 Degrees, Bears and Postscript.
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lives and writes in Berlin.
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