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The Living and the Dead (2007) July 20, 2009

Posted by Dragan Antulov in Film Reviews.
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(ŽIVI I MRTVI) (2007)

A Film Review

Copyright Dragan Antulov 2009

War is often not only hell, but also an incomprehensible hell. Wars in former Yugoslavia, including Bosnian War (1992 – 1995), were anything but simple, especially to those who haven’t experienced them first hand. Authors of NO MAN’S LAND, the best known film dealing with that dark chapter of history, had to add a conveniently educational TV report in the order to give some meaningful context to what happens to characters. The realities of early 1990s Bosnia were even more complex, and one of the more tragic, more baffling – and for that reason, conveniently forgotten – examples is Bosnian-Croat conflict which lasted between 1992 and 1994. In 2002 those events provided setting for THE LIVING AND THE DEAD, novel by Josip Mlakić, later celebrated by Croatian literary reviewers. In 2007 Kristijan Milić directed film adapation which later won every relevant award at Pula Film Festival.

The plot begins in Central Bosnia during the second year of the war. The alliance between Bosnian Croats and Bosnian Muslims, who used to fight Milošević-backed Bosnian Serbs, is falling appart. Small unit of Croatian Defence Council (HVO) militia is suddenly cut off and receives orders to join Bosnian Croat lines. In order to do so, it must pass through territory held by Muslim-dominated Bosnian Army (ARBiH). Their path includes location called Grobno polje (Field of Graves). One member of the unit is Tomo (played by Filip Šovagović) whose grandfather Martin (also played by Filip Šovagović) took part in similar expedition fifty years later. Parallel plot takes place in 1943, during WW2, with Martin being recruited into Homeguards, regular forces of pro-Axis Independent State of Croatia. His unit, commanded by fascist Ustashas, is ordered to flush out Tito’s Communist Partisans. The path leads them towards Grobno polje, where they would encounter something other than their, usually invisible, enemies.

THE LIVING AND THE DEAD in many ways shows how Croatian cinema matured and rose above its nadir in 1990s. Only few years ago the subject of the film was taboo, and approach Mlakić (who co-wrote the script) and Milić take towards those events is devoid of cheap pathos or forced patriotism. Film doesn’t bother to explain complicated politics between the conflicts, both in 1940s and 1990s. Milić instead focuses on the basic, raw experience of war that brings the best and the worst in men. Two small groups of men portrayed in this film usually succumb to the latter – either by being pathetic cowards or showing too much eagerness for killing, while only few people actually try to preserve some kind of humanity or basic sanity.

Maturity of THE LIVING AND THE DEAD is also seen in technical quality of the film. It is made with relatively low budget, but those very basic resources are put to the great effect. Cinematography is very good, as well as music. The actors are also very good. Milić also shows great ability to fuse some rather different genre traditions. The characters and the way they are portrayed resemble those in Hollywood revisionist action and western films, most notably Walter Hill’s SOUTHERN COMFORT. On the other hand, Milić also builds his film on the tradition of Yugoslav Partisan films that usually featured the locations and situations very similar to those in THE LIVING AND THE DEAD. This is best seen in 1943 segments, which were shot in sepia tones.

Use of two plots, set in different times but with same situations and same fate that awaits protagonists, underlines the dark, pessimistic tone of the film. Nothing has been learned in fifty years – people of Bosnia are still willing to engage in pointless, absurd, fratricidal wars. THE LIVING AND THE DEAD suggests that things even got worse. In 1943 one of Martin’s comrades is Bosnian Muslim; fifty years later his grandsons would exchange bulletts with Tomo. In 1993 the true nature of conflict is revealed when Bosnian Croat militiamen actually recognise some ot their Muslim adversaries as people with whom they went in schools, played football and shared drinks only few years ago.

THE LIVING AND THE DEAD is good film, but until the its last scenes it looks like it could have been a very good, perhaps even excellent film. Mlakić and Milić are trying too hard to show that the war is hell. They aren’t satisfied by showing evil in real and human form; instead they add irrational elements that culminate in surreal finale which belongs more to horror than war film genre. The ending is disappointing; it doesn’t add much to THE LIVING AND THE DEAD. Instead, it ruins the general impression by looking like forcefully imported from Japanese ghost films. Despite that, THE LIVING AND THE DEAD deserves recommendation because the depressing truths it tries, and for the most part succeeds, to tell are universal despite their context being complicated and incomprehensible.

RATING: 6/10

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