Director: Vinco Bresan
Stars: Drazen Kuhn, Alma Prica, Lubomir Kerekes
Release Company: Film Movement
MPAA Rating: NR
War has served as subject matter for countless films, the majority of which are classified as “anti-war” films since most wars are patently surreal exercises of human folly. In recent history, the volatile Balkan region provides much theater for the absurd. With underlying racial and cultural tensions recently erupting among diverse neighborhoods once admired for its down to earth people living in relative harmony, Yugoslavia is an easy landscape to stage movies like No Man’s Land to illustrate the absurdity of war. Likewise, Croatian film Witnesses (Svjedoci) dramatizes the surreal situation where long time residents suddenly become enemies within their home neighborhoods, inevitably leading to tragedy and causing participants to question the meaningfulness of their existence.
Based on Jurica Pavicic’s novel Alabaster Sheep, director Vinko Bresan opens the film with three Croatian soldiers planting a bomb at the home of a neighboring Serb, who was supposed to be out of town. Unfortunately, the man emerges from his home and the soldiers gun him down, taking the only witness hostage. Initially the director attempts to create suspense by keeping the “mystery” witness off screen and referring to “it” only, but that may be more a shortcoming of the English language and the film’s subtitle translator—as English has no acceptable non-gender specific human pronoun. First thought is that “it” could be a betraying pet dog, but why would the soldiers hesitate to kill “it” when they so readily murdered the Serbian man? The mystery is short lived, however, through an abandoned teddy bear, chocolate cake, and the revelation about the Serbian’s semi-secret young daughter.
This isn’t the only gimmick of the film, as it revisits Kurosawa’s landmark Rashomon structure. Thus, if you feel at first that puzzle pieces are left out, plot confusions will soon be clarified since the filmmaker rolls back time throughout to show the same scene from a different character’s viewpoint. Additionally, he includes crucial back-story elements through flashbacks that explain the motivations of major characters—most notably how the father is killed on the front lines and how Kreso (Leon Lucev) lost his leg. Both situations illustrate the gray areas of the civil war, and how impossible it is to identify definite enemies and allies.
The plot revolves around the murder of the Serb, a loan shark not well loved by his Croatian neighbors but an independent soul who refused to acknowledge political practicalities and move out of his home. Detective Barbir (Drazen Kuhn) finds little cooperation outside an investigative journalist (Alma Prica), and even the town mayor and surgeon Dr. Matic (Ljubomir Kerekes) urges Barbir to look the other way, deliberately distracting the detective by performing an operation on Barbir’s hopelessly comatose wife. Matic happens to be a family friend of the guilty soldier, further illustrating how ridiculous are any hopes of constructing moral certitude in such an absurd setting.
Kudos to production designer Ladislav Markic for creating appropriately claustrophobic and dark sets that don’t even lighten up much when outside. Even when it’s not nighttime or raining steadily, the gray skies and clouds enshroud the characters in perpetual gloom. The only glimmer of sunlight comes with the finale, when a budding family portrait literally walks into the sunset. The ending may be cliché but the actors restrain themselves sufficiently to create believability, and the production design emphasizes this aspect.
Previously specializing in satire and comedy, Bresan takes a darker turn this time. Winner of a Special Mention award at the 2004 Berlin Film Festival, Witnesses is a worthwhile film. Although it explores familiar anti-war terrain with Kurosawa’s well-known structure, Bresan captures the atmosphere of the Croatian war effectively and offers an insider’s view about the complex situation by creating believable characters that are striving to find a way to co-exist within their surreal moral and physical environment.