What men will do in `No Man's Land'

April 12, 2002|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

The winner of this year's Best Foreign Film Oscar, No Man's Land wrings more black comedy and terror out of the close quarters of a trench than Panic Room does out of a panic room.

Bosnian writer-director Danis Tanovic's tight narrative strands one Serbian and two Bosnians in the same ditch between their warring armies' lines - and plants one of the Bosnians on top of a "bouncing mine" that will detonate as soon as he rolls off it.

This movie goes beyond "war is hell": Tanovic dispenses with that maxim right away, when he shows the massacre of a Bosnian relief squad en route to the front. What the rest of the movie toys with is the much richer idea that war is limbo. In the midst of the mayhem of the Bosnian Civil War, nothing can get done.

Tanovic has the skill to hook our interest in a handful of stressed-out characters and keep us wondering whether they will act above or below normal capacities. The walking-wounded - as opposed to lying-down wounded - Bosnian, Tchiki (Branko Djuric), is a sardonic, grungy fellow in a Rolling Stones T-shirt. Near the start, one of his cronies quips, "What is the difference between an optimist and a pessimist? A pessimist thinks things can't get worse; an optimist knows they can." That joke sounds the movie's keynote.

Tchiki's Serbian counterpart, Nino (Rene Bitorajac), is a combat greenhorn whose clean-shaven, square-cut look and wire-rim glasses give him the aura of a student idealist, like Tom Courtenay in Dr. Zhivago. While Nino bobs and twitches at battle sounds like a semi-intelligent big bird, Tchiki lays back, then lunges like a wolf.

Of course, you root for these opposites to partner up. After all, recent combat films have told us that political issues evaporate as soon as bullets fly, and these guys are under fire from all directions. In the movie's signature image, they strip down to their underwear, climb to the trench top and wave white banners to each side. The two antiheroes do catalyze the Bosnian commander into calling the U.N., and a champing-at-the-bit U.N. sergeant (Georges Siatidis) races to the scene. After weeks on the sidelines, he thinks he can finally do some good. With the help of a hard-driving broadcast journalist (Karin Cartlidge), the sergeant calls in an expert to defuse the mine, circumventing the standing orders of a randy, supercilious U.N. commander (Simon Callow), who wants no part of any action that could blow up in his face.

But even after the sergeant pulls up in his white U.N. tank, he can't douse the enemies' atavistic fires. Tchiki won't leave his mine-bound Bosnian friend and doesn't trust Nino to return if he leaves the trench alone. (Tchiki also needs Nino to translate for them with the U.N.) Their relationship goes from a succession of minor understandings to a series of escalating wounds.

Tanovic sees tragicomedy in the inability of U.N. peacekeepers, international TV journalists and two armies to save three men. He manages to be anti-war without being shallowly pacifist. As the action spins out of control, he makes an accessible and engrossing movie about an ethical conundrum - is it better to do nothing when the outcome is so difficult to calculate?

Yet the movie leaves you with far more than a dark-comic cackle. Nearly every character (except for the Dr. Strangelove throwback of the U.N. commander's secretary) shows some strength or virtue; by the end, the U.N. sergeant looks heroic, and even his commander's cynicism seems like worldly wisdom.

Tanovic's own artistry in the face of atrocity is inspirational. Thanks to his surgical eye and vigorous stagecraft, viewers keep burrowing into details that skitter across his wide-screen frame while retaining sight of the big picture. No Man's Land is a 98-minute wonder: this story of three men in a trench renews the meaning of the word "trenchant."

No Man's Land

Starring Branko Djuric and Rene Bitorajac

Directed by Danis Tanovic

Released by MGM

Rated R (violence, language

Running time 98 minutes

SUN SCORE * * * *

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