Sunday, May 17, 2009

BHFF: It’s Hard to Be Nice

The war has been over for more than ten years, but Sarajevo is still a dangerous city, where criminals operate with near impunity. Fudo ought to know, since he happens to be one. However, he is trying to go straight in Srđan Vuletić’s It’s Hard to Be Nice (trailer here), Bosnia and Herzegovina’s official selection for the Best Foreign Language Film of the 2008 Academy Awards, which screened last night at this year’s Bosnian-Herzegovinian Film Festival.

As a cab driver, Fudo is a creature of the night, rubbing shoulders with some unsavory customers. Not only does he sell valuable information to criminal gangs, he has even been known to run errands of a dubious nature himself. After a botched job earns Fudo a beat-down and black eye, his wife Azra temporarily moves out. To win his family back, Fudo agrees to go straight, but it proves more challenging than he expected (as the title suggests). His old criminal associate Sejo is determined to scare him crooked again, but a series of events convinces him of the necessity of virtue.

In a series of sharply written scenes, Fudo hires his new Renault minivan out to a group of Japanese tourists, allowing him an opportunity to see Sarajevo through the eyes of outsiders. He has no good answer when asked why his countrymen do not seem to value their own history. It pains him to see bullet holes defacing the sites of the 1984 Winter Olympics, a time he still remembers fondly. He also genuinely likes his guileless Japanese customers and bitterly resents it when the villainous Sejo tries to take advantage of them.

In the early scenes of Nice, Fudo commits just about every unseemly deed possible, while still maintaining the audience’s rooting interest. He might even alienate some viewers with his behavior, but he does come to a heart-felt conversion, which is the real point of the film. Sasa Petrovic brings a virile charisma to the deeply flawed Fudo, and his scenes with the Japanese tourists have a surprising depth of feeling, which makes the evolution of his character completely believable.

Vuletić’s screenplay is too street-smart to be called “feel good,” recognizing the costs involved in standing up to corruption in contemporary Bosnian society. He effectively uses the city of Sarajevo as a backdrop, capitalizing on its scarred beauty for dramatic effect. The on-screen action is perfectly complemented by a moving score composed by Saša Lošić, a popular Bosnian pop-rock figure, and Bosnian-born Srdan Krupjel, who has scored several British film and television projects.

Though at times rather dark, Nice is in fact a realistically hopeful film. That cautious optimism and Petrovic’s excellent performance are ultimately quite satisfying, making Vuletić’s film an excellent representative of Bosnia and Herzegovina’s cinema, well-suited to the BHFF’s mission.