Monday, January 11, 2016

A Perfect Day: Somewhere in the Balkans

International relief workers finally get the M*A*S*H treatment. These Aid Across Borders volunteers hook-up and joke around, but they truly want to help the civilian population that has been so traumatized by the Balkan War. However, a relatively simple task will escalate into a life-and-death crisis in Fernando León de Aranoa’s English language debut, A Perfect Day (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

A rotund corpse has been dumped in a Balkan village’s only potable drinking well. Mambrú, a veteran Spanish field worker and his local fixer Damir were on the case, but their rope broke. Their gonzo colleague B and the naïve rookie Sophie were nearby, but they are fresh out of rope. Unfortunately, the nearest general store has plenty of rope, but it happens to be in a different ethnic conclave. It is pretty clear the locals were either responsible for the body in the first place or are protecting those who put it there.

Thus begins an increasingly absurd and dangerous quest for rope. Frankly, it is probably the first time B has been so determined to find hemp in this form. Of course, the UN (the Blue Helmets) are not much help. Unfortunately, the Aid Across Borders bureaucracy does not understand the boots-on-the-ground realities either. Believing the truce renders their services unnecessary, they have dispatched Mambrú’s former mistress Katya to write a report that confirms their judgement. Whether she likes it or not, she is about to join the mismatched quartet in their mad dash for rope—and it is rather pressing. If they can remove it within twenty-four hours, the purification process will be relatively non-invasive, but if the well is befouled any longer than that, it will have to be closed.

Maybe they would have a better chance of finding rope if they could actually identify which country they were in. All we are told is that it takes place somewhere in the Balkans circa 1995. It sure looks like Bosnia and the sinister folks who refuse to share their rope definitely bring to mind the Bosnia Serbs, but the mealy-mouth nature of León de Aranoa’s screenplay (based on a novel by Paula Farias, former head of the Spanish operational section of Doctors Without Borders) is rather annoying on that score. That is a shame, because the film has real bite when it conveys a sense of war’s random cruelty and the cluelessness of the UN forces.

The NGO’s international constituency allows León de Aranoa to assemble an interesting cast that probably would not otherwise have a chance to work together. Tim Robbins arguably does his funniest work since The Player as the defiantly rude B. Mélanie Thierry’s guileless Sophie serves as an effective audience proxy when confronting the disillusioning realities of war. Naturally, Bernicio Del Toro plays Mambrú the ladies’ man, because what woman could resist a piece of man candy like him, right? Of course, Olga Kurylenko’s sex appeal is better established, but she plays Katya as a refreshingly smart and assertive professional. However, the real discovery is the Bosnian Fedja Stukan, who basically steals the show as the salt-of-the-earth but decidedly vulnerable Danir.

There are some wickedly clever scenes and some depressingly bitter ironies in APD. If León de Aranoa had not decided to bend over backwards to avoid offending anyone, it could have been a definitive film on the Balkan War. Instead, it is a good film rather than a great one, primarily for the way it captures the very real dangers (including landmines and dubious paramilitary checkpoints) faced by international relief workers. Recommended for those who already have a solid grounding on the 1990s conflict, A Perfect Day opens this Friday (1/15) in New York, at the IFC Center.