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With: Branko Djuric, Rene Bitorajac, Filip Sovagovic, Georges Siatidis, Kaitlin Cartlidge, Simon Callow
Written by: Danis Tanovic
Directed by: Danis Tanovic
MPAA Rating: R for violence and language
Language: Bosnian/Serbo-Croatian, French and English, with English subtitles
Running Time: 98
Date: 05/11/2001

No Man's Land (2001)

3 Stars (out of 4)


By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Danis Tanovic's No Man's Land won the Best Screenplay award at this year's Cannes Film Festival, and before the first half of the film was over, I was able to tell exactly why. It's mostly a two-character piece, taking place on one set, like a play.

The mindset that theater and literature are superior to cinema has not changed in over 100 years. That's why those dull Merchant-Ivory pieces continue to command such awe and respect -- they reduce the art of cinema to a bastardized form of literature.

The 2001 Cannes jury, headed by stage and screen actress and director Liv Ullmann, most likely saw in No Man's Land an attempt at theater and offered up the accolades it felt the film deserved.

It's for that same reason that I suspiciously question the film's nature.

No Man's Land takes place during the Bosnian-Serbian war. A group of volunteer Bosnian soldiers gets lost in a fog and winds up much farther into enemy territory than expected. When the fog clears, the soldiers find themselves under attack. One Bosnian, named Ciki (Branko Djuric), survives by diving into a trench -- in neutral no man's land.

Two Serbs are dispatched to check out the trench and Ciki jumps them, killing one of them. But not before they can plant a deadly land mine under Ciki's fallen comrade -- one that will go off when the body is moved. The remaining Serb, Nino (Rene Bitorajac), and Ciki begin a deadly face-off that only gets complicated when it turns out that Ciki's comrade Cera (Filip Sovagovic) is not dead after all and now cannot move because of the mine.

The Bosnian and the Serb get lots of screen time to argue over their beliefs. Not surprisingly, each man discovers that they're not so different after all, even though each man believes he's right and the other is wrong. Eventually though, members of the United Nations and various reporters enter the scene and attempt to diffuse the situation and the bomb.

First-time writer and director Tanovic manages to make some interesting characters out of these latecomers, especially a TV journalist named Jane Livingstone (Kaitlin Cartlidge) and a French U.N. blue helmet named Sergeant Marchand (Georges Siatidis). And the familiar face of Simon Callow (Four Weddings and a Funeral) turns up as the colonel stuck in the middle of the mini-conflict.

Not only do these characters attempt to rescue our two entrenched soldiers, but they also attempt -- and actually succeed -- in rescuing the film, taking it away from the one-set/two-person idea and turning it back into a movie with new locations, visual ideas, characters and conflicts. In addition, they serve as sharply-drawn caricatures who beautifully parody the supposed stupidity and naiveté of the media and the military.

By film's end I was impressed by the rich tapestry of characters, dark humor and violence, all carefully balanced and delivered with a modicum of rational thought. The movie's anti-war message is beautifully folded into the fabric of the film and not preached to us through a phony Private Ryan character. Though the staginess of the first half still niggled at me, No Man's Land easily comes away a victor.

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