[continued from here]

Soy Nero was also another pretty good example of Berlin's tendency to push forward in its competition films that purport to deal artistically with "important" subjects. My friend Luís Miguel Oliveira called it with pithy accuracy "the topic festival" and he has a point, especially when you factor in the presence in competition of Bosnian Oscar winner Danis Tanović.

     Death in Sarajevo was, again, a good example of a globalised "serious" subject, connected to the centenary of the death of Archduke Franz Ferdinand's 1914 association that triggered World War I. Mr. Tanović's work has always had the Balkans and its destructive ethnic wars at its heart, and Berlin has never shied from shining the spotlight on it (the first year I covered the festival, Jasmila Zbanić's sensitive tale of a "war orphan" and her mother's shameful secret, Grbavića , released in the UK as Esma's Secret and in the US as The Land of My Dreams, won the Golden Bear).

     But having said that, there's a strong sense that the amount of films that have dealt with Yugoslavia's violent breakup have yielded surprisingly few memorable titles. On paper, Death in Sarajevo is "just another one of those", but on screen it manages to give a few interesting twists to this sub-genre. Based on controversial thinker Bernard-Henri Lévy's theatrical monologue Hotel Europa, Mr. Tanović's film takes place in a single location over a compressed period of time, literally speeding between different areas of the Sarajevo hotel where everything takes place, tracing a "network narrative" where not everything goes according to plan.

     Ostensibly - and this is the film's feeblest link - Death in Sarajevo talks about the still gaping wound of the ethnic conflicts, flaring up again as the recovering city hosts a European summit to commemorate the assassination of Franz Ferdinand. In fact, that wound is a mere facade to speak of a crumbling Europe where nobody gets along anymore and capitalism has replaced morality and values; it's obviously heavy-handed to set everything in a flashy Hotel Europa that has (barely) survived a war but may not survive neo-liberalism, with an imminent bankruptcy that can only be staved if the hotel workers call off the strike planned for its busiest day in years and with the global media eye trained on the city. You can't live on the past alone, and certainly what's past won't pay today's bills.

     Well meaning may Death in Sarajevo be, heavy handed now and then, but it's certainly not a dull ride nor a dumb one; the film opens up Mr. Lévy's play (originally a monologue) into an ensemble piece that integrates the actual work (and its performance by Jacques Weber, who created it on the stage) as one of many strands in a narrative that uses the hotel itself as a giant stage, from the terrace where a news programme is going out live to the underground laundry room. Erol Žubčević's widescreen camera roams fluidly the corridors and hallways of the Europa in a constant to and fro that keeps moving the story forward; Mr. Tanović's script creates a surreal, nightmarish tone of bleak satire, a more restrained and comfortable take on Emir Kusturica's free-for-alls that aims at Altman without getting there but thankfully isn't as hackneyed as most of the Crash-alikes, with strong work from an adroit ensemble cast.

     It's the director's best film since No Man's Land brought him to the world's attention, managing to undercut both expectations and prejudices with a well-placed sense of timing (at under 90 minutes, it doesn't overstay its welcome). Winner of the festival's Jury Grand Prize (effectively the Golden Bear runner-up), it's a better film than well-meaning but incohesive projects like Bridges of Sarajevo, but strongly undersold by an unattractive title and a weird poster image that put it right back into the box it wants to leap out from. It's the kind of film that asks questions it doesn't really have any answers for but still doesn't shy from asking them.

[to be continued]


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