PRETTY VILLAGE, PRETTY FLAME (LEPA SELA LEPO GORE)
(director/writer: Srdjan Dragojevic; screenwriters: from war reports by Vanja Bulic/Nikola Pejakovic; cinematographer: Dusan Joksimovic; editor: Petar Markovic; cast: Dragan Bjelogrlic (Milan), Nikola Pejakovic (Halil), Nikola Kojo (Velja), Milorad Mandic (Viljuska), Lisa Mancure (Lisa), Dragan Maksimovic (Petar), Zoran Cvijanovic (Brzi); Runtime: 115; A Fox Lorber/Cobra Film; 1996-Yugoslavia)
“This bleak tale is told from the point-of-view of the Serb soldier who is severely wounded.”
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
Set in Bosnia during 1980 and 1992 (the story swings back and forth in time, from the break-up of Tito’s unified Yugoslavia to the present ex-Yugoslavia). A tunnel erected in 1971 to symbolize the path of “Brotherhood and Unity,” linking Zagreb to Belgrade, is depicted in fake newsreels to show how everything went wrong; the tunnel is then shown ten years later, when it is left abandoned and becomes the film’s battle scene.
This bleak tale is told from the point-of-view of the Serb soldier who is severely wounded in a Belgrade hospital in 1994, and flashes back to his childhood and then the war and the hopes that died with Tito. He states even if Tito was a liar and a scoundrel, at least the country was unified. It is allegedly based upon a true story, one that echoes the director’s universal appeal for everyone to end all their hatred.
The plot focuses upon the longtime friendship of Muslim Halil (Nikola Pejakovic) and Serbian Milan (Dragan Bjelogrlic), who grow up in peacetime as best friends in a small village and become partners in an auto repair shop. They shared a common fear of the childish tale of an ogre that lives in their local abandoned tunnel. Each child was determined, even in the childhood games they played, to not give up until they won. Their somewhat happy childhood is shown in flashbacks. When the ethnic war is waged in their country they now face each other as enemies, as Halil traps Milan’s side in an abandoned tunnel.
Milan’s mother is brutally killed and Halil’s home is destroyed, as they become symbols for the maddening war that is taking place. Even these childhood friends can’t trust each other anymore and have been drawn into the hatred of the conflict. The bitter war seems almost to be inevitable. The story is told in a detached style, emphasizing the bloody battles as it clearly shows how war is both hell and insanity.
There are some vintage moments; some peace group members chanting “Give Peace A Chance” outside a war hospital; those trapped in the tunnel drinking urine out of a diet-Coke bottle to stay alive; and, of Milan climbing out of his hospital bed with an uncontrollable rage and crawling on the floor to get vengeance on a Muslim wounded prisoner of war who is behind a glass partition.
If the film could be faulted it is that everyone in it is used as a symbol, which takes away some of the spontaneity of their individualism. The characters don’t really stick with us as much as the arson of the villages does. A soldier says as he helps burn a village without even knowing its name: “Pretty villages are pretty when they burn. Ugly ones stay ugly, even when they burn.”
Pretty Village, Pretty Flame mostly takes place inside the musty tunnel among the trapped Serb troops who are running out of water, led by a Communist captain eagerly recalling the good old days under Tito. Among the beleaguered platoon of soldiers facing periodic Muslim assaults and psychological taunts (being called Chetniks) are a thief, a drug addict (forced to join the army or go to prison), and a professor. They are joined by a young American television journalist who sneaked on their truck carrying a Muslim visa and a video camera, and who does not speak Serbian. She becomes the symbol of the United States and its unwillingness to intervene to stop the genocide.
This is a disturbing film, not one that is easy to watch, even as its gallows humor tries to lessen the somber tone. Its vivid images (the villages burning were taken from real newsreels) leave a bitter impression and very little hope for the future. To understand this conflict, is to understand how modern Yugoslavia (1929-92) was carved up among the different ethnic groups by other countries and how these ethnic conflicts have a long history behind them. If the director blames the United States and the rest of the world for not doing something, he clearly must blame his own countrymen first.
REVIEWED ON 8/27/99 GRADE: C+ https://dennisschwartzreviews.com/