The heavy burden of recent history hangs over The Load, a title that proves to be as much metaphorical as literal. World premiering at Cannes this week as part of the Directors’ Fortnight sidebar, Serbian director Ognjen Glavonic’s debut dramatic feature takes place in a bleak Balkan landscape where everything is the color of wet cardboard, from the mottled sky to the doleful hills to the godforsaken people.
An austere suspense thriller about a truck diver transporting a top-secret cargo, this Serbia-France-Croatia-Iran-Qatar co-production invites cosmetic comparison with Henri-Georges Clouzot’s fraught classic The Wages of Fear and William Friedkin’s semi-remake Sorcerer. But there the parallels end, because Glavonic’s mumblecore road movie chugs along in a much lower gear.
Glavonic based this long-gestating passion project on a notorious real incident during the Balkan wars of the 1990s, first explored in his documentary Depth Two, which premiered in Berlin in 2016. But despite sharing the same root, these sister projects became very different films. Depth Two is a forensically detailed examination of a war crime; The Load is a minimalist drama whose dominant mood is low-level despair. Though it is based on a true-life horror story, it feels purposely drained of tension and suspense. After Cannes the pic should find a keen audience among the the misery-porn masochists who program and attend film festivals, but its relentlessly dour tone will make it a very niche commercial prospect, especially for non-Balkan viewers not attuned to local nuances.
The setting is Serbia in 1999, during NATO’s airstrike campaign against the Slobodan Milosevic regime. Lugubrious middle-aged truck driver Vlada (rising Croatian star Leon Lucev) arrives at a run-down warehouse in war-torn Kosovo to collect the mysterious load he has been tasked with transporting to the Serbian capital Belgrade. The rules of the job mean sticking to a strict timetable, asking no questions and keeping his secret cargo locked away at all times. Vlada’s odyssey becomes a dreary stop-start slog across a purgatorial wasteland of burning cars, flattened houses and recently bombed bridges.
Along the way, Vlada breaks the rules by stopping to make payphone calls to his wife, who is apparently undergoing medical tests, and to offer a lift to teenage hitchhiker Paja (Pavle Cemerikic), an aspiring rock musician fleeing his cursed homeland with hopes of a new life in Germany. When Vlada leaves the truck unattended for mere minutes, a pair of passing delinquents steal a vintage cigarette lighter with sentimental family value, a small incident which will resonate deeply later.
Glavonic never explicitly reveals the contents of Vlada’s truck, but he does drop some very strong hints, and anybody who saw Depth Two will know the gruesome backstory. However, the filmmaker purposely does not make the secret cargo the pic’s main dramatic meat, preferring to focus instead on one man’s moral degradation as a mirror for an entire nation. His stated intent is to address difficult topics that still remain taboo in Serbia even 20 years later.
The Load ends with Vlada ruminating on past family glories in the fight against the Nazis, a pointed contrast with Serbia’s squalid war crimes under Milosevic. Two of the majestic modernist monuments to major WWII battles that pepper the former Yugoslavian landscape even figure tangentially in the plot, thought their significance is under-explained.
Mostly shot in long and wordless takes, many from inside Vlada’s truck cabin, The Load is a remorselessly drab visual experience for characters and audience alike. Lucev does his best with a haunted, taciturn antihero, but he has little to work with beyond gruff, bald dialogue. If Glavonic set out to sculpt a film with all the aesthetic appeal of wet cardboard, he succeeded rather too well. This well-intentioned meditation of the banality of evil packs a modest emotional punch, but it might have been more powerful if it had shown us a little less banality and a little more evil.
Production companies: Non-Aligned Films, Cinéma Defacto, Kinorama, Three Gardens Film
Cast: Leon Lucev, Pavle Cemerikic, Tamara Krcunovic, Ivan Lucev, Igor Bencina, Tanja Pjevac, Jovo Maksic, Radoje Cupic, Jovan Toracki, Jelena Maksimovic
Director-screenwriter: Ognjen Glavonic
Producers: Sophie Erbs, Ognjen Glavonic, Stefan Ivancic, Dragana Jovovic
Cinematographer: Tatjana Krstevski
Editor: Jelena Maksimovic
Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Directors’ Fortnight)
Sales: New Europe Film Sales