A Comedy of Bad Manners

With war and rumors of war dancing through pretty much everybody's heads lately, what better time for the appearance of an absolutely first rate war movie? What's that? You hate war movies? Well, maybe it's time to give war a chance. No Man's Land may be a lot of things, but make no mistake about it: This is not your father's war movie.

No Man's Land, nominated for an Academy Award for Best Foreign Film, is a difficult movie to get a bead on but an easy one to appreciate, a minimalist tragicomedy as far removed from John Wayne and old school courage-under-fire as it is from the nonstop carnage of Black Hawk Down. Explosions and firepower are essentially just a means to an end here. What the movie's more interested in is rattling our cages while shedding a little light on some enduring attributes (most of them pretty complicated and, frankly, ugly) of the human animal. As war movies go, the closest correlation that comes to mind would be Kubrick's Dr. Stangelove, and you know that can't be bad.

In terms of the war on everyone's mind — the one we're currently waging with global terrorism — this is not a film that's particularly timely, nor does it seek to be. No Man's Land, is set in 1993 on the front lines of the Bosnia-Serbia conflict. It's a million miles removed from the events of 9/11, from the creeping menace of Islamic fanaticism and from slickly designed, screaming CNN graphics advertising "America's New War" exactly as they would sell us Procter & Gamble's New Soap. Be thankful for small favors.

No Man's Land, which might very loosely be called a comedy of bad manners, is the thoroughly original debut of a director named Danis Tanovic, who hails from Bosnia-Herzegovina and is himself no stranger to combat. As some of us dimly remember, Bosnia is part of the former Yugoslavia, and No Man's Land has a lot in common with that distinctly Eastern European brand of filmmaking that critics used to think of as the "cinema of moral anxiety." With a wit as sharp as it is bone dry, Tanovic's sly, savvy film is intense and heavy without being heavy handed, a slapstick farce that carries the weight of the world on its shoulders. The movie is both absurdist and honestly anguished as it offers up what sometimes seems to be a tongue-in-cheek take on the oh-so-serious subject matter of the Serb-Bosnian arthouse classic Before the Rain — redone as the blackest, bloodiest comedy on the block.

No Man's Land opens with characters silently emerging from a fog so thick they can't see their own feet — an apt metaphor for the muddled history and ongoing convolutions of the Balkans (Landscape in the Mist director Theo Angelopoulos has a virtual patent on this particular image, of course, but it's nice to see such a juicy visual metaphor given a new lease on life). It isn't until a scene later, when the fog lifts, that we get our first good look at the characters — a ragtag band of soldiers, some of them middle-aged, some obscenely young, all of them ordinary folks shooting the shit and full of life. The fog lifts, the characters are revealed as flesh-and-blood humans, gunfire erupts out of nowhere, and within seconds, almost all of the characters we've just met are dead.

Timing is everything, and, as in so much of No Man's Land, it's largely because of timing that the scene plays out simultaneously as tragedy and comedy. As it turns out, the dead men are Bosnians — although it's nearly impossible here to tell the players without a scorecard, and there's not a scorecard in sight — and the bodies are heaped in a trench located in a proverbial no man's land somewhere between Bosnian and Serbian lines. A couple of Serb soldiers trek over to the trench to survey the damage, only to discover there's still one Bosnian alive; one thing leads to another, eventually culminating in a situation where the antagonistic Serbs and Bosnian find themselves trapped together in ridiculously close quarters — an existentialist hell worthy of Sartre or the Marx Brothers.

It all just gets more complicated from there. The characters come to blows over who started the war (the dialogue here is priceless), the tables turn several times as each manages to wrest the gun away from the other, and, in one disastrous moment, an undefuseable land mine is planted under the body of a dead man — who turns out to be not quite as dead as imagined. The whole thing plays out like a version of the Serb-Bosnian conflict in miniature, with two bitter enemies stuck together in a hole between enemy lines, in limbo, with only a human bomb for company.

The movie feels very much like a pared-down, two or three-character chamber piece right up until its mid-point, when Tanovic opens things up and gets the United Nations and the media involved, both of whom turn out to be at least as problematic as the belligerent Serbs and Bosnians. The men trapped in the trench come to the attention of the world, and the situation suddenly threatens to become an international incident, with ineffectual UN observers and pompous television reporters crawling around everywhere. No one lifts a finger to help the men because of their various hidden and self-serving agendas. The media feeding frenzy and circus-like atmosphere continue to snowball until No Man's Land begins to feel like something that Preston Sturges or even Fellini might have concocted. The closest comparison, though, would be a deadlier, Euro-take on that grand old Billy Wilder-Kirk Douglas Hollywood classic, Ace in the Hole (also known as The Big Carnival).

Even at its most ridiculous moments (and I use the word ridiculous with the greatest affection), No Man's Land feels honest and real. Tanovic heightens these qualities through his choices of music (almost none), dialogue (clever and incisive) and by striking a careful balance throughout, warming the film up with humor and humanity whenever it begins to seem too intense or bleak.

There's no way around the fact that No Man's Land is bleak, of course, but it's also as potent as you'd expect from a movie whose pivotal visual metaphor consists of a living dead man lying on a mine that can't be defused. Tanovic is never content to leave bad enough alone, though, and can't help but shrug his shoulders and wink at the pain. This is one movie where the grass is always deader on the other side of the tracks, so when one of the film's beleaguered characters cracks a joke about some other part of the world where things are really bad off, we can't help but laugh, almost against our will, at the extravagant, preposterous awfulness of it all.

Lance Goldenberg can be reached at [email protected] or 813-248-8888, ext. 157.

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