In the trenches

Absurdist martial satire finds plenty of blame to go around.

NO MAN'S LAND

written and directed by Danis Tracovic with Branko Djuric and Rene Bitorajac opens Dec. 21 at Uptown

RAGTAG BOSNIAN troops tiptoe through coal-thick fog, searching for their post. They deride one other in haggard whispers. One lights a cigarette and is chastised by his nebbish field guide: "Put that out! Do you want them to see us?" They could draw a Serbian ambush, activate a mine, die at any moment.

Have we walked this war-torn movie terrain before? Probably. Do we, along with the Bosnians, nearly snap under its suffocating tension? Certainly.

The men awaken to find themselves in a billowing grassy field equidistant from Serbian and Bosnian lines. Snap. Snap. Snap. Serbian sharpshooters pick them off like tin cans, all but Ciki (Branko Djuric), who flops into a trench, wounded but alive.

Such is the launch of a potentially stellar feature career for Bosnian documentarian Danis Tracovic. No Man's Land is a deserving candidate for foreign-language Oscar laurels, a claustrophobic epic that uses the early-'90s war in Bosnia to re-evaluate conventional notions of heroism and patriotism.

The Serbs send a sadistic veteran and a greenhorn, Nino (Rene Bitorajac), crawling toward the trench to polish off any survivors. Once there, they assume an unconscious Bosnian, Cera, is dead, and position him over a spring-loaded mine. Should Cera's countrymen remove him, the mine will rocket skyward and release enough shrapnel to kill everyone in sight. Cunning plan, except for the X-factor: Ciki pops out to kill the veteran and wound Nino.

What's left are three tired, trapped, short-tempered nationalists who have to endure one another's politics and egos until the United Nations arrives. Watching Ciki and Nino inadvertently trade power and small arms, all the while trying to keep Cera immobile, is consistently fascinating. Aside from a breezy sequence where the two meditate on old squeezes, the principals have no shortage of vitriol. The bespectacled, gentlemanly Nino seethes when Ciki mocks his attempts at small talk. Ciki is a cooler cat, a chain-smoking Stones fan who makes Nino "admit" at gunpoint that Serbia started the war, then forces him to dance around in his skivvies to draw both sides' attention.

Meanwhile, image-conscious U.N. "Smurfs"—so ridiculed for their sky-blue helmets—attempt to defuse the bloodlust, but with predictably half-assed results. A British field reporter does her stereotypical best to make the lonely standoff a Media Event, but Land's lifeblood is its trench-bound trio, who may be past helping. In the end, Tracovic transposes poetry over atrocity in leading his combatants to a jarring, memorable coda.

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