REVIEW: DVD Release: The Living And The Dead

Film: The Living And The Dead
Release date: 21st February 2011
Certificate: 18
Running time: 87 mins
Director: Kristijan Milic
Starring: Filip Sovagovic, Velibor Topic, Slaven Knezovic, Marinko Prga, Borko Peric
Genre: Fantasy/War
Studio: Kaleidoscope
Format: DVD
Country: Croatia/Bosnia and Herzegovina

Two time periods, two groups of conscript soldiers, one haunted hillside that leads them to their destruction. Kristijan Milic’s The Living And The Dead paints a brutal, uncompromising portrait of these two bloody moments in the history of the Balkans as we see men separated by time but united by grim circumstance fight their way across the unchanging and blood-soaked lands of Serbia.

Both groups are on the run from superior forces and take shelter in a graveyard as their enemies close in around them and their final battles begin.

As their numbers inevitably start to dwindle, the men begin to question the value of their orders and, ultimately, their struggle, choosing instead to search for something of greater meaning.

The survivors are menaced by the ghostly images of their fallen comrades and struggle to come to terms with their visitations and the actions that each man has taken…

There is no specific plot as such. The film offers multiple viewpoints and no particular central character from whose point of view a story is told. Closest to this would be the duel characters of Tomo (1993) and Martin (1943), both played by Filip Sovagovic as grandfather and grandson. Martin, in particular, is the everyman moral compass of the piece and, in both time periods, he is surrounded by the usual cohort of two dimensional squaddies. One of these, Vielli (Velibor Topic), the brutal ex-boxer killing machine offers the only other true character perspective.

The rest of the troop is drawn from the war film staples: the cowardly young kid, the cynical weathered officer, the comic relief... From when the battles begin in the first thirty minutes, it is clear that the only real objective is survival. Thus the film transfers from the war genre into something much more akin to survival horror as, inevitably, the characters are picked off one by one, and the ghostly supernatural element begins to fully present itself.

Clearly aimed at a Croatian/Balkan audience, the film does little to disentangle the various factions at play. In the more modern story, the enemy is simply described as ‘The Serbs’ and ‘The Muslims’. In the past story, the enemy is the Serbian communists and our protagonists are drawn from the Croat State conscripts. This confusion, however, has very little bearing upon any enjoyment of the film, which carries as a statement nothing more complicated than “war is hell” and “we’re all going to die anyway.”

As the soldiers enter the graveyard area and the ghosts begin to appear, the film enters its strongest moments. The raw psychological effects of being alone and hunted in the dark are delivered compellingly by the ensemble cast who manage to retain the humanity of the soldier in the face of the paranormal twist. The simplicity of the ghosts who appear merely as people who the characters know are dead, staring uncompromisingly at their former comrades, allows us to retain the belief that their images are born as much of stress and combat fatigue as from any cursed patch of ground or ectoplasm. This marries with a film that is no gore-fest. The most harrowing scenes of corpses better resemble war correspondent footage than horror film gratuity.

As reflected in the numerous awards at the Pula Film Festival, including Best Film and Best Director, the film’s visuals merit the strongest praise. The Croatian location shooting contributes much to the film’s feel and style. A grey, brooding, empty desolate wasteland, helped only by minimal effects, adds to a sinister, windswept dread that makes soldier after soldier crack under its weight. Effective, too, is the choice of music that mirrors the triumphal martial dirges glorifying national pride. Played alongside the dire consequences of extreme nationalism, the irony is unmissable.

The film seems almost to go out of its way not to make sense either of the issues of the two wars or debate their rationale. Such exposition, as is offered, tends to be devoted to establishing our limited characters and including as many ethnic jibes as possible. This appears to be a deliberate tack, and expands upon the films message in presenting the senselessness of conflict regardless of the context. This is further indicated by the casual barbarity eschewed by some but jokingly tolerated by most. There is graveyard humour as items stolen from the slain are then handed on as the platoons are whittled down by enemy action and ghostly occurrences.

The film invites us to consider all its protagonists as dead from the moment they appear on screen with its opening text insert: "We are all dead, only buried sequentially." That being the case, it can be challenging to feel much beyond a general distaste for warfare as the protagonists begin their inevitable dwindling in number. The experience is greatly enhanced, however, by a rudimentary understanding of the conflicts it seeks to mirror. The film is perhaps guilty of not offering enough of grounding to non Balkans for whom much of its intricacy and allegory are lost.

The Living And The Dead might make for somewhat heavy going for the interested outsider. As evidenced by its winning reception at Pula, there is a great deal more to this film for those for whom the Bosnian conflict is both all too real and all too recent. For them, one suspects the ghosts take on a symbolism that a foreigner can never truly share. NB

No comments:

Post a Comment