'The High Sun' ('Zvizdan'): Cannes Review

The acting shines brightly in three love stories told with absorbing passion.

Croatian director Dalibor Matanic looks back in compassion at the rifts left by Yugoslavia’s wars.

The cruel ethnic wars fought in former Yugoslavia from 1991 to 2001 are revisited with passion and compassion in Dalibor Matanic’s absorbing drama The High Sun (Zvizdan), which looks back at the beginning and end of the conflict through a trio of poignant love stories. Though the stories and characters are different, all three feature the superb young actors Goran Markovic and Tihana Lazovic as war-crossed lovers, linking the narrative with a bridge of anguish, guilt and redemption. The film hits a high-water mark for Croatian writer-director Matanic (Fine Dead Girls, Kino Lika), and its bow in Cannes’ Un Certain Regard should launch respectable art house sales.

The internecine wars that culminated in the splintering of Yugoslavia into separate countries have inspired many a film, from Goran Paskaljevic’s Cabaret Balkan to Srdjan Dragojevic’s Pretty Village, Pretty Flame and Ademir Kenovic’s The Perfect Circle, to name some of the classics. What makes The High Sun contemporary and relevant is the way it sums up 20 years of simmering hatred and hostility and shows how the scars still remain.

One quibble is that, for outsiders, it's extremely difficult to identify the characters by their ethnic nationalities, but perhaps the blurred lines are intentional, so that no greater blame is cast on any group. In any case, that's not the point here: The pain of the war and its aftermath spare no one.

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The first story is set in the immediate prewar period of 1991 amid growing suspicion and fear. An idyllic summer swim by three kids in a lake straddling two Balkan villages is interrupted ominously by military convoys on the move. Jelena (Lazovic) is a rough-and-ready blonde who plans to elope with her clownish, trumpet-playing boyfriend, Ivan (Markovic). Her brother, just drafted into the army, violently opposes the match on the grounds that Ivan is an oaf from “the other side.” The episode’s shocking ending announces an end to peace.

The war is already over in the second tale, set 10 years later on, in 2001. Lazovic plays a moody teenager who returns to the family homestead in enemy territory to find it devastated. Her mother is as intent on rebuilding as Scarlett O’Hara, but Natasa can’t let go of vindictive memories of her brother, who was killed in the war. Her meeting with a young repairman (Markovic) from “the other side” has little chance to turn into romance.

By the time the last story takes place in 2011, a party atmosphere has returned to the country, but it’s only a mask hiding unhealed wounds. When Luka (Markovic) comes home for a drug- and alcohol-fueled rave by the lake, it becomes a chance to seek redemption with Marija (Lazovic), a girl he wronged. Once again, the naturalistic, nuanced performances create suspense around the outcome and sympathy for all the characters sadly trapped by history.

Matanic has a mature vision of his characters and, along with cinematographer Marko Brdar, creates a pristine stage for them to act on, all forested hills and cold, refreshing water that, in each episode, has a purifying function.

Production company: Kinorama
Cast: Tihana Lazovic, Goran Markovic, Nives Ivankovic, Dado Cosic, Stipe Radoja, Trpimir Jurkic, Mira Banjac
Director, screenwriter: Dalibor Matanic
Producer: Ankica Juric Tilic
Co-producers: Petra Vidmar, Frenk Celarc, Nenad Dukic, Miroslav Mogorovich
Director of photography: Marko Brdar
Production designer: Mladen Ozbolt
Costume designer: Ana Savic-Gecan
Editor: Tomislav Pavlic
Music: Alen Sinkauz, Nenad Sinkauz
Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Un Certain Regard)
Sales: Cercamon

In Croatian

123 minutes