'A Perfect Day': Cannes Review

A slow starter that's more rewarding when it takes a sober turn.

Benicio Del Toro, Tim Robbins, Olga Kurylenko and Melanie Thierry play international aid workers in the Balkans in Fernando Leon de Aranoa's minor-key seriocomedy.

Spanish writer-director Fernando Leon de Aranoa makes a respectable English-language debut with A Perfect Day, about a group of humanitarian aid workers stationed in the Balkans in 1995 as the Bosnian conflict was winding down. Tipping its hat to antiwar screen comedies that came out of the counterculture movement like Catch-22 and MASH — with a dash of the mordant absurdism of Emir Kusturica and Goran Paskaljevic fueled by the setting — the good-looking film’s humor is low-key to a fault, and its characters don't always generate the sparks that the script intends. But the name cast should help it cross borders to find a limited commercial life.

Best known for Mondays in the Sun and Princesas, Leon de Aranoa has focused in his films on gritty subjects such as marginalized urban youth, immigration, unemployment and prostitution. The unsung, socially committed, nonviolent missionaries of war would seem a good fit for him, even if the writing and character observation only fully engage in the later action, as the tone shifts to poignancy and pathos.

Based on the Spanish novel Dejarse Llover by Doctors Without Borders veteran Paula Farias, the story aims to capture the spiky solidarity of a disparate band of adventurers from various countries. Exposed to numbing atrocities, maddening bureaucratic tangles and ever-shifting jurisdictions as reality struggles to keep up with the progress of peace talks, they face a daily battle not to let their cynicism erase their compassion.

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The head of the small Aid Across Borders unit in a rugged mountain area is Mambru (Benicio Del Toro), who is weighing with some degree of ambivalence whether to return to the U.S., where his girlfriend is pressuring him to settle down. He's flanked by French newcomer Sophie (Melanie Thierry), a water and sanitation expert who brings both the idealism and the vulnerability of inexperience. Veteran logistics guy B (Tim Robbins) is a reckless type with an unpredictable streak, who chooses not to be serious even in life-or-death situations like navigating possible land mines. Their interpreter Damir (Fedja Stukan) is a soulful local who points out early on that their humor is among his people's most valuable resources.

The droll dilemma that drives the action over a 24-hour period is a typically double-edged problem. They need to remove the corpse of an obese man from a well before one of the last water sources not booby-trapped with mines is irreversibly contaminated. Whether the body was dropped there by enemies or by enterprising locals planning to sell water at inflated prices is unclear. But obtaining the rope needed for the task proves difficult.

Potential conflict arises when Mambru's prickly former lover Katya (Olga Kurylenko) is assigned to tag along with them while she evaluates whether it still makes sense to have aid workers stationed in the area. "Where'd you get her?" cracks B about the Russian beauty. "Models Without Borders?"

The actors are all more than capable of breathing definition into their characters, and Del Toro in particular shows his usual sleepy-eyed charm. But Leon de Aranoa seems convinced the script (written with Diego Farias) is a lot funnier than it actually is. Much of the humor comes from Robbins, as a familiar brand of gonzo dude who juggles his adrenaline highs with smart-mouthed deadpan ennui. But for an ensemble comedy, there's too little animation in the characters' interplay, yielding frequent flat stretches in the early scenes.

The film settles into a more satisfying groove when Nikola (Eldar Residovic), a stray kid rescued by Mambru from bullies, leads them back to his village home in search of a length of rope and his soccer ball. There's a lovely balance here between desolation — the bombed-out streets and houses, the sorrowful evidence of families torn apart — and comedy, when they find the rope attached to a savage dog. The effectiveness of the scenes exposing the reality of Nikola's life as a child of war suggests that this vein of humanistic storytelling comes more naturally to the director than dark humor.

However, while it's uneven, A Perfect Day builds to a nice melancholy conclusion. It underscores with gentle strokes the frustration and disillusionment of self-sacrificing workers confronted on a daily basis with feelings of futility in the face of corruption and compromise. Even kids by necessity turn into operators in conflict zones, even U.N. peacekeepers can become obstacles and even the locals that NGO workers seek to help can be uncooperative, viewing them as only marginally less suspicious than the foreign military.

The film looks sharp, with cinematographer Alex Catalan finding plenty of visual breadth in the rocky mountain landscapes, with their winding roads. (Spanish locations in Granada, Malaga and Cuenca stand in for the Balkans.) Leon de Aranoa punches up the scene transitions with tracks from iconic rock and punk bands like the Velvet Underground, the Ramones and the Buzzcocks, though the Lou Reed classic that gives the film its title is conspicuously absent.

Cast: Benicio Del Toro, Tim Robbins, Olga Kurylenko, Melanie Thierry, Fedja Stukan, Eldar Residovic, Sergi Lopez
Production companies: Reposado, Mediapro
Director: Fernando Leon de Aranoa
Screenwriters: Fernando Leon de Aranoa, Diego Farias, based on the novel 'Dejarse Llover,' by Paula Farias
Producers: Fernando Leon de Aranoa, Jaume Roures
Executive producers: Patricia de Muns, Javier Mendez
Director of photography: Alex Catalan
Production designer: Cesar Macarron
Costume designer: Fernando Garcia
Music: Arnau Bataller
Editor: Nacho Ruiz Capillas
Casting directors: Timka Grahic, Camila-Valentine Isola
Sales: WestEnd Films

No rating, 106 minutes.