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No Man's Land

By Lee Gardner | Posted

After modern wars end, it seems, the troops go home, the battlefield flora begins to grow back, and some filmmaker somewhere starts working on a black comedy based on the conflict. No Man's Land is the latest inheritor of a lineage running from Catch-22 and M*A*S*H through Three Kings, in which the horrors and politics of a recent bloodbath--in this case, the interethnic war in Bosnia-Herzegovina--get a mordant comic twist. Perhaps due to the wearying reality of the conflict in question, writer/director Danis Tanovic's absurdist trench warfare feels a little flat.

The film begins in a literal fog of war, as a detachment of Bosnian soldiers on their way to the front gets lost in a thick mist and finds itself facing down the Serbian lines. As the Serbs machine-gun his companions, woebegone Ciki (Branko Djuric) makes it to the relative safety of a trench in the middle of the titular void. When the Serbs send out two soldiers to investigate, Ciki kills one and wounds the other, green recruit Nino (Rene Bitorajac). Not only are the two relentlessly bickering enemies both trapped in a hole in the ground in the middle of a battlefield; Ciki's injured buddy Cera (Filip Sovagovic) is lying on a boobytrap that will kill them all if he moves. Before long, both the United Nations and ambitious television reporter Jane Livingstone (Katrin Cartlidge) get involved--not that they can actually do anything to help.

No Man's Land won Best Screenplay at Cannes in 2001 and Best Foreign-Language Film at the most recent Oscars, and it's not hard to see why. Tanovic's script combines the absurd nattering of Waiting for Godot with a keen and up-to-the-minute sense of irony (the hapless blue-helmeted UN observers are referred to as "Smurfs"; a newspaper-reading combatant clucks, "What a mess in Rwanda"), and his direction is subtle and astute (the action takes place in a vast grassy field so idyllic you keep expecting cows to wander by). And yet his take on the situation is so rigorously balanced between Bosnian and Serb, combatants and bystanders, comedy and tragedy that it ultimately ends up neither here nor there.

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