Donkey -- Film Review

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PALM SPRINGS -- The Balkan countries that have emerged since the civil war of the '90s have produced a number of intriguing films. "Donkey," Croatia's entry in this year's foreign film Oscar competition, deals both overtly and more indirectly with the turmoil that rocked the region for years.

The film is set in 1995, and in the opening scene, a couple and their son pass a platoon of soldiers as they drive from Zagreb to a country village for a family reunion. As they try to resolve their tensions, the family conflict stands in for the larger battles raging in their country. The film is perceptive and touching but probably too slow paced to connect with most American audiences.

Boro (Nebojsa Glogovac) feels distant from his wife, and when they arrive at the home of his aunt and uncle, we see that the same problems affect the older generation. Boro's uncle expects his wife to serve him without complaint, and we learn that Boro and his father have been estranged for years. The arrival of Boro's brother (Emir Hadzihafizbegovic), who was paralyzed during a bombing raid in Sarajevo, brings some of the buried tensions out into the open. But it is only when the family agrees to look after a neighbor's donkey that the old wounds begin to heal. Boro's young son and his elderly father both bond with the donkey, and as their mood mellows, the characters reach toward a tentative reconciliation.

The gifted young director, Antonio Nuic, is clearly attempting a pastoral fable about the therapeutic powers of nature. The rural setting, however, is not idealized. A nearby lake at first seems inviting, but we quickly learn that it has been the site of many village drownings. So nature can be a trap as well as a cure. As the vacation continues, the fathers and sons try to understand each other, and Boro also recognizes the deep-seated sexism in this very male-dominated community.

One of the strengths of the film is the performance of Glogovac (who also starred in a fine Serbian movie, "The Trap," a couple of years ago) as the sullen anti-hero. He has the ability to make his character's torment palpable, and he wins our sympathy even when he's maddeningly uncommunicative. All of the other actors register vividly, and Roko Roglic, who plays Boro's young son, is endearing without ever turning cloying.

Cinematography by Mirko Pivcevic is elegant, and the haunting score by Srdan Gulic helps to sustain the delicately whimsical mood. Although the film sags in places, by the end it achieves a winning spirit of tranquility.

Venue: Palm Springs International Film Festival

Cast: Nebojsa Glogovac, Natasa Janjic, Roko Roglic, Tonko Lonza, Emir Hadzihafizbegovic, Ljubomir Kiki Kapor, Asja Jovanovic
Director-screenwriter: Antonio Nuic
Producer: Boris T. Matic
Director of photography: Mirko Pivcevic
Production designer: Nedjeljko Mikac-Cak
Music: Srdan Gulic
Costume designer: Ante Tonci Vladislavic
Editor: Marin Juranic
No rating, 87 minutes
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