Solemn Promise (Besa) -- Film Review

An unlikely, beguiling bond sparks this beautifully acted, offbeat WWI Serbian drama.

PALM SPRINGS -- A sacred vow made at the outset of the First World War sets the stage for a curious, oddball relationship between an Albanian school custodian and a Slovenian headmaster's wife in the tenderly observed, fact-based "Solemn Promise."

Serbia's foreign-language Oscar submission boasts a pair of terrific, richly inhabited performances by Miki Manojlovic and Iva Krajnc that have been given ample room to breathe by veteran filmmaker Srdjan Karanovic.

Shortly after arriving in a small Serbian town, the new school principal (Nebosja Dugalic) is called away to Belgrade to do his part for the war effort. While he doesn't want to leave his pretty, young Slovenian wife (Krajnc) alone to fend for herself in the empty schoolhouse, finding anyone to look after Lea proves difficult in a hostile environment where she's regarded as an Austrian sympathizer.

He ultimately secures a protector in Azem (Manojlovic), the school's illiterate Albanian Muslim caretaker, who gives him his "besa," his solemn word that no harm will come her way.

Initially, the steadfast Azem takes his promise a little too closely to heart, treating the feisty Lea like a virtual prisoner inside the eerily empty building. Little by little, though, the two outsiders form an odd but captivating bond.

The film may have been based on a real-life incident, but Karanovic's two leads masterfully make the story all their own. With very little dialogue to fall back on, the spirited Krajnc (who brings to mind a young Nicole Kidman) and the sad-eyed Manojlovic put an endearingly human face on this intimate, intriguing byproduct of international conflict.

Venue: Palm Springs International Film Festival
Production companies: Film House Bas Celik, Vertigo/Emotionfilm, Asap Films, Tivoli Film Produkcio
Cast: Miki Manojlovic, Iva Krajnc, Nebosja Dugalic, Radivoje Bukvic
Director-screenwriter: Srdjan Karanovic
Producers: Srdan Golubovic, Jelena Mitrovic
Director of photography: Slobodan Trninic
Production designer: Goran Joksimovic
Music: Zoran Simjanovic
Costume designer: Sasa Kulijaca
Editors: Branka Ceperac, Mateja Rackov
Foreign sales agent: Soul Food
Not rated, 104 minutes