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NO MAN'S LAND

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Branko Djuric, Rene Bitorajac, Filip Sovagovic, Simon Callow, Katrin Cartlidge
Director:  Danis Tanovic
Audio:  Dolby Digital 5.1
Video:  Anamorphic Widescreen 2.35:1, Pan & Scan 1.33:1
Studio:  MGM
Features:  Theatrical Trailer
Length:  97 Minutes
Release Date:  April 9, 2002

“Know the difference between a pessimist and an optimist?  A pessimist thinks things can't get worse.  An optimist KNOWS they can.”

Film ****

Francois Truffaut once said it was impossible to make an anti-war movie, because the action in them inevitably makes war look exciting.  Perhaps it's no coincidence that some of the best films about the futility of war involve the inability to act.  Dr. Strangelove, for example, isn't so much about accidentally starting a nuclear war, but about our leaders' inability to prevent it. 

At the heart of No Man's Land is a character who can't move because he's on a Bouncing Betty land mine.  To get up would mean death for him and those in his trench.  It's just another incident in a long raging war, but this time, the eyes of the world are watching.  Death may be everywhere around them, but here is a story that everyone finds intriguing.

This film from writer/director Danis Tanovic stands shoulder to shoulder with some of the great pictures depicting the absurdity of war.  It's the kind of movie that could not have been made in Hollywood.  It might have been attempted, but our placid vision of two enemy soldiers trapped in a trench would have become a microcosm of human understanding and delivered the message that maybe peace was possible, even if only one bond at a time.  Tanovic, on the other hand, has obviously seen too much reality to make such a tidy film.

Those two aforementioned men are the Serb Ciki (Djuric) and the Bosnian Nino (Bitorajac).  They end up in a trench in the middle of No Man's Land, within sight of two armies who don't know what to do because they don't even know whose side the men are on!  And complicating their tense situation is another Bosnian, Sera (Sovagovic), originally thought dead.  His body was booby trapped with the land mine, and now that he's come to, he's forced to just lie there and wait.  This is a microcosm, all right, but a real one.  What happens in the trench is no different than the rest of the war in Bosnia.  Neither of the mobile men trusts the other, and we wait for the other shoe to drop.  In the meantime, that land mine is an even BIGGER shoe.

UN peacekeeping forces try to reach the men, after begging both sides not to shoot (and hoping the message is actually understood).  When they see Ciki and Nino at each other's throat, they draw an instant conclusion about them and about both sides in the war:  “They're f—king maniacs!”.  Their superior wants them out of there; they can do nothing and there's no sense in getting killed on a peacekeeping mission.

But the press gets a hold of it, and a reporter for Global News (Cartlidge) decides there's a story there.  What follows is a both bleakly funny and disturbing, as the UN soldiers try and make it look like they're doing something while really doing nothing.  “Act like you're busy,” a superior actually tells his mine expert.

The absurdity is plain…here is the war that introduced the terrible term “ethnic cleansing” to the world vocabulary.  Here, in plain view, is a small particle of that war with a distinct human drama…easier to digest and strangely more intriguing than the massacre of thousands.  This in a sense becomes the goodwill Saving Private Ryan mission for the UN…the one small good deed that might put a positive face on unimaginable horror.  But the Ryan mission, despite being absurd, at least had heart.  Here, we have a peacekeeping force that would rather not be bothered with what it considers a trifle situation, but they have to proceed cautiously, lest the media show the world just how ineffectual they really were.

The film wisely sidesteps the issue of who is right and who was wrong in the conflict.  To be about the politics of war, the film would have to be about the politics of action, and here, we have only the politics of inaction.  The final shot in the movie is astounding and speaks volumes.  If enough people see it (and they should), I think it could become almost as culturally ingrained as the final shot of Citizen Kane.

No Man's Land won both the Golden Globe and the Oscar for Best Foreign Language film, and it very much deserved them.  It's a deceptively simple yet bold statement about the absurdity of war…the things we can't help but chuckle about in spite of the horrors.  Or just maybe, because of the horrors.

Video ***1/2

This is a superb anamorphic offering from MGM (trust me, you don't want to watch this movie in pan & scan).  The outdoor lighting makes for a beautiful setting, despite the conflict.  The level of detail in the fields, rocks, and trenches is astounding, with crisply defined lines and terrifically rendered and natural looking colors.  Save for very minute instances of noticeable print spots and a bit of shimmer during the final shot, it's very close to being reference quality.

Audio ***1/2

As you might expect from a war movie, this 5.1 soundtrack is exemplary and dynamic.  Moments of long winding dialogue are punctuated by the harsh intrusive sounds of war…expect to be startled; you won't always know when they're coming.  The action oriented scenes are lively and clean, with plenty of front to rear stage action with smooth crossovers and good balance, and plenty of rumblings for your subwoofer.  Quieter scenes are equally well rendered…the sounds of war are sometimes distant, but always present, making for a good multi-dimensional effect.  A quality listen all around.

Features *

Only a trailer, but it's a remarkably good one.

Summary:

No Man's Land is indeed an Oscar worthy triumph about the absurdity of war, which can and is both a little funny and terrifying.  This quality DVD offering from MGM is a good way to experience it for the first time, for those of us who didn't get a chance to see it on the big screen.  It's an instant classic, and I for one hope it isn't the last we hear from writer/director Danis Tanovic.