Cirkus Columbia -- Film Review



SARAJEVO -- Bosnia's most international director, Danis Tanovic, never has repeated the success of the paradoxical war story "No Man's Land," winner of the foreign-language Oscar in 2002, instead striking out in new international directions with "Hell" and "Triage."

With his fourth film, "Cirkus Columbia," Tanovic wisely returns to his Bosnia and Herzegovina roots, where the small but highly nuanced story, set in prewar 1991, rings with authenticity and weight.

Still, Match Factory will have to use its muscle to move this unpretentious film through jaded European markets. It has a straightforward quality that makes it seem a bit old-fashioned, or at least a story that has been told before. Fortunately, the characters are absorbing, and the story moves swiftly.

As genre, it harks back to the Eastern European sweet little village films, playing on that nostalgic ideal of summer swims in the river and first sexual encounters while leading up to the ugly war about to break out in former Yugoslavia. These two sides of the film are embodied in young Martin (Boris Ler), a ham-radio enthusiast, and his single mom, Lucija (Mira Furlan), whose tragic face reflects the atmosphere of foreboding and the chaos to come.

The action begins when the middle-aged Divko (Miki Manojlovic) proudly drives into town in his big Mercedes, with the flame-haired pinup Azra (Jelena Stupljanin) on his arm. Having enriched himself in Germany, he has waited for the communists to depart and is now ready to spend the rest of his days living in peace in his family home. The only problem is that it is occupied by his wife, Lucija, and his son, Martin, but he heartlessly kicks them out with the connivance of the local mayor and moves in.

Manojlovic is a masterful comedian and a king of understatement; here, he spends most of the film mistreating poor Azra and looking for his missing cat Bonn -- or rather, he enlists Martin and Azra, and eventually the entire town, to search for his runaway pet. In the background, the war machine rumbles and prepares to strike, and we know all too well that even this lovely town in Herzegovina is going to be dragged to hell.

The script by Tanovic and Ivica Dikic is simple to a fault, becoming utterly predictable in the forbidden romance between Martin and his father's bride-to-be. One suspects there's a lot of humor lost in the translation. Although the irony of "No Man's Land" easily crossed borders, not all of "Cirkus Columbia" succeeds in doing the same.

The cast is strong, including newcomers Ler and Stupljanin, but none brightens the screen like Furlan in her Mother Courage role as Divko's abandoned ex-wife. Her neat little headscarf identifies her as a woman of the people, and she's scrappy, stubborn and beautiful, too. It's no surprise to find she has a VIP suitor knocking at her door, a local army officer who has helped raise Martin these 20 years that his father has been away.

Shot principally in Herzegovina -- location of the miracle site of Medjugorje -- the unnamed town appears to be partly Catholic, partly Muslim, though the possible religious difference between Martin and Azra never is developed. The political subtleties around the last days of Yugoslavia will be most appreciated by local audiences. Suffice it to say that Tanovic highlights the animosities of the early post-communist era.

The picture is an elaborate co-production among Bosnia and Herzegovina, France, the U.K., Slovenia, Germany, Belgium and Serbia, involving many of the region's top producers.

Venue: Sarajevo Film Festival
Production: 2006 Sarajevo, Art and Popcorn, Asap Films, Autonomous, Man's Films, Razor Film Produktion, Studio Maj
Cast: Miki Manojlovic, Mira Furlan, Boris Ler, Jelena Stupljanin, Mario Knezovic, Ermin Bravo, Jasna Ornella Berry, Miralem Zupcevic, Mirza Tanovic
Director: Danis Tanovic
Screenwriters: Danis Tanovic, Ivica Dikic
Producers: Cedomir Kolar, Amra Baksic Camo, Marc Baschet
Associate producers: Mirsad Purivatra, Dunja Klemenc, Marion Hansel, Gerhard Meixner, Roman Paul, Miroslav Mogorovich, Cat Villers
Director of photography: Walther van der Ende
Production designer: Dusko Milavec, Sanda Popovac
Costumes: Jasna Hadzimehmedovic-Bekric
Editor: Petar Markovic
Sales agent: Match Factory
No rating, 113 minutes