J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Before the War: Cirkus Columbia

Communism was supposed to create the “new man.” Somehow it did not take in the former Yugoslavia. Perched on the brink of war, a small Bosnian-Herzegovinian town engages in some major score settling throughout Danis Tanović’s Cirkus Columbia (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

In Martin Buntić’s village, the Serbian Communists are on the outs and the politically connected Croatians are in. Much to the surprise of his mother Lucija, this includes her long estranged husband Divko, who has returned from a twenty year exile to evict them from his family home. He also brought along a German trophy fiancé and a considerable bankroll. Supposedly, he will marry her as soon as he divorces Lucija, but it does not seem to hold much urgency for the prodigal father, as the displaced Azra cannot help but notice.

In turn, Martin and his friends certainly notice her. As old man Buntić belatedly tries to play Daddy Warbucks to Martin, at least when not berating him for being such a slacker, the son starts to get ideas about his prospective step-mother. Meanwhile, with the shelling of Dubrovnik reported, choosing sides appears increasingly inevitable. Martin’s surrogate father Ranko Ivanda, an officer in the Serbian dominated People’s Army, is explicitly told to put his ethnic loyalties first, while Martin’s best friend enlists with the local Croatian paramilitaries.

Selected by Bosnia-Herzegovina as their official foreign language 2011 Oscar submission, Cirkus portrays a considerable amount of ethnic conflict within their borders, but perpetrated by other nationalities. It also presents Germany as a Switzerland-like safe haven, first for the senior Buntić under Communism and later for those seeking to flee ahead of the anticipated carnage.

Petty and manipulative, the audience should loathe Divko Buntić. However, the haggard looking Miki Manojlović humanizes him to a remarkable extent, clearly conveying the emotional weight of his years of alienation. In contrast, Boris Ler’s squirrely Martin Buntić comes across like a commercial for Ritalin. What the worldly Azra, played with admirable charm and conviction by Jelena Stupljanin, could see in him is quite the head-scratcher.

Indeed, their Summer of ’42-ish relationship is the weakest link of the film. Rather, Cirkus is most successful capturing the milieu of impending war, as the country appears to hang in mid air, like a towering fly ball at the top of its arc, about to come hurtling down into a maelstrom of violence. (That purple metaphor was dedicated to Tom “Flat Earth” Friedman.)

Frankly, the politics of it all are somewhat tricky to entangle, at least as presented in Cirkus, which is probably appropriately realistic and deliberate. There is a part of the film that laments the fall of Communism, because it allowed the once unified country to splinter along ethnic lines. Yet, who does it think supplied most of the arms to the Serbian Army and their Bosnian-Serb allies, who committed the worst (but not only) atrocities? At one point, the former Communist mayor expresses regret the Berlin Wall was brought down from the western side. Again, who does he think put it up in the first place? On the other hand, the clear Serbian nationalism of the dissolving Yugoslavian Army is depicted in no uncertain terms.

There are some lovely moments of innocence soon-to-be-lost in Cirkus. Handsomely lensed by cinematographer Walther van de Ende, the film captures the village’s Old European charm and also dramatically illustrates why lifelong citizens would become desperate to leave. Evocatively rendered if somewhat uneven, Cirkus is not essential but worth checking out when it opens this Friday (2/17) in New York at the Quad Cinema.

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