Monday, June 08, 2009

BIFF ’09: Landscape No. 2

Unlike the Balkan states, Slovenia’s independence from Communist Yugoslavia was nearly bloodless. However, Slovenian history was not always so peaceful. During WWII, Slovenia was wracked by civil war, which culminated in the notorious Bleiburg Massacre immediately following the triumph of Tito’s Communist partisans. The discovery of the 383 mass graves continues to haunt the country, appearing as the omnipresent focus of Slovenian media in Vinko Moderndorfer’s dark crime drama, Landscape No. 2 (trailer here), which screens as part of this year’s Brooklyn International Film Festival.

Criminal improvisation is always a bad idea. Veteran thief Polde and his young apprentice Sergej have a good racket going. They steal art plundered from the national museum by the former elites of the old regime, only to ransom them back to their wrongful owners for a pretty penny. However, as the thieves liberate the national treasure Landscape No. 2 from a former Communist general, Sergej spontaneously decides to crack the safe and grab the cash inside. Inadvertently, he also scoops up documents that would incriminate the men behind the 1945 massacre.

The old corrupt officer is not about to wait for Polde’s ransom call. He calls in the Instructor, a rather pedestrian looking killing machine to recover and destroy the incendiary document. Of course, the immature Sergej is oblivious to the chaos he has set in motion, off-handedly stashing the unexamined papers at one girlfriend’s flat, before sneaking off for a night of passion with the other. However, his romantic two-timing is rudely interrupted by the shocking news of Polde’s suicide. Suddenly, things get very real for Sergej.

Altthough Moderndorfer uses the conventions of the crime noirs, Landscape is more about the corrosive influence of Slovenia’s national secrets. Years of Communist rule kept the truth of the massacre tightly under wraps. Clearly, many would like to prevent further historical inquiry into such a delicate subject. Yet, for Damjan, Sergej’s archivist neighbor, and presumably Moderndorfer, the truth must be exposed to bring closure to a painful episode in Slovenian history.

The Slovenian cast-members all seem to project a sense of world-weary resignation that well serves Moderndorfer’s naturalistic style. The positive exception would be Maja Martina Merljak’s energetic performance as Sergej’s well-heeled, vivacious girlfriend Jasna. As Sergej, Marco Mandic is a convincing lowlife lothario, whose cad-like behavior makes him a less than sympathetic rooting interest. Regrettably though, Jaka Lah’s supporting turn as Sergej’s infatuated neighbor Damjan comes off as an unfortunate gay stereotype.

Moderndorfer and cinematographer Dusan Joksimovic create a dark, dank vision of contemporary Slovenia, where it seems to be perpetually raining and the sins of the past still exert a malicious influence on the present. Landscape is a smart, but pessimistic film that challenges comfortable Western historical preconceptions of World War II and Tito’s partisans. It screens again Sunday (6/14), as the Brooklyn International Film Festival continues at the Brooklyn Heights Cinema.