No Man's Land
No Man's Land (2001), by Bosnian documentary filmmaker Danis Tanovic, is a trenchant, bitter, sometimes funny picture that, in parts, is almost up there with Billy Wilder's allegorical-yet-realistic slice of desperate, newsworthy darkness and absurdity, Ace in the Hole (1951). The premises are different, but the cynicism and the attack on exploitation are there, making the plight of three trapped soldiers one lying atop a land mine ready to detonate from the slightest movement nervous, gritty, and wonderfully acerbic. It's easy to laugh, but that laughter comes from a different place, a place where we are forced to examine why we find parts of this hell so oddly amusing. It's not the fun of watching Owen Wilson run like hell through early-'90s Bosnia in Behind Enemy Lines, or the jocular amusement of hoping Andie MacDowell gets hit and killed by shrapnel in her insipid Bosnian drama Harrison's Flowers (sadly, she lives) rather its real morbidity and stress, causing laughter out of anxiety. Set in 1993 during the Bosnian-Serb conflict (though "conflict" is too simple a word to describe it), the movie opens while Croatian soldiers, lost in a fog, decide to wait until morning to push on. Bad idea. By daybreak they're suddenly face to face with Serbian troops, a skirmish occurs, and men are killed. One soldier, Ciki (Branko Djuric), lands himself in a trench and lives, hiding from the Serbs as they place a dead Croat on a land mine. But with more frightening confusion, Ciki is stuck in the same trench with an injured Serb, Nino (Rene Bitorajac), and their problems are only beginning. When the supposedly dead Croat, Cera (Filip Sovagovic), stirs to life, they realize they're in a deadly predicament if Cera moves from the American-made "bouncing mine," they'll all be cut to ribbons. Cera is stuck, and with no one able to deactivate the mine, he must suffer the most simultaneously claustrophobic and agoraphobic situation imaginable. This is when No Man's Land turns darkly cutting: The United Nations' humanitarian force is called out, along with an international television news network, where a reporter rather absurdly and deliciously (to them) covers "the absurdity of war." Though the film almost feels like a gimmick, one imagines that these kinds of things could happen usually people just wind up dead or with limbs missing. And first-time feature filmmaker Tanovic's style is so viscerally rough, yet not in a self-serving Saving Private Ryan way (there's no: "look how gritty I can make all this seem! Aren't you impressed?"), we sense that this documentation actually cares about this situation. Tanovic's depth is sustained by his bold humor, understanding that existential nightmares often become pessimistic comedies. MGM's No Man's Land DVD offers a pristine anamorphic transfer (1.85:1) as well as a full-frame option (1.33:1), with the Serbo-Croatian audio in Dolby Digital 5.1 and English subtitles. Trailer, keep-case.