Srdjan Dragojevic's "Pretty Village, Pretty Flame" makes a stunning companion film to Emir Kusturica's "Underground" as a brutal, bravura allegory on the terrible disintegration of Yugoslavia. It has much the same passion, pain, anger and sooty humor of the Kusturica film and similarly boasts an array of vital, earthy characterizations.
Both filmmakers are too sophisticated to send conventional anti-war messages but instead create epic panoramas of human folly and suffering fueled by unbridled racism.
Dragojevic moves back and forth in time with supreme confidence, but his key shifts occur between 1980, the day Tito dies, and 1992, when war breaks out in Bosnia between Serbs and Muslims. The setting is an idyllic mountain community, where nine years before Tito, seen in newsreels, is dedicating--with appropriate pomp and ceremony--the Brotherhood-Unity train tunnel connecting Zagreb and Belgrade.
By 1980, the tunnel is seen full of scaffolding, and two little boys are afraid to enter it, believing it is inhabited by an ogre. Although one is a Serb and the other a Muslim, the boys are best friends, and they still are as adults, in the spring of 1992. "Will there be a war?" wonders Halil (Dragan Petrovic). "What war?" replies Milan (Dragan Bjelogrlic), as they sit in a sunny roadside cafe on the top of a mountain.
Events, however, overtake them like a forest fire raging out of control, and they find themselves suddenly enemies. Halil believes Milan burned down his garage; Milan hears that two men in Halil's patrol killed his mother.
By now, Dragojevic is widening his perspective as the war progresses, moving beyond the two former friends to depict Serbian soldiers on a savage rampage throughout the area, burning, slaughtering and looting with a rock 'n' roll glee and abandon. Eventually, however, a small group of Serbs find themselves trapped in that tunnel, among them Milan. Among their Muslim captors is, inevitably, Halil.
The film, in effect, unfolds as a flashback, in the memory of Milan as in 1994 he lay in a Belgrade hospital bed, recuperating from serious war injuries. Nearby is a fellow survivor of the 10-day tunnel siege, the Professor (Dragan Maksimovic).
Milan's memories of the siege constitute the bulk of the film, where Milan and other Serb soldiers, plus an American journalist (Lisa Moncure) with a camcorder, are holed up, contemplating their fate, dipping into their own memories and dreams. Having characterized the Serbs as savages, Dragojevic now uncovers their humanity.
The sequences set in the increasingly symbolic tunnel present Dragojevic with another kind of challenge: sustaining interest and momentum throughout the long siege. However, whereas "Pretty Village," which could be shorter, is for sure grueling, Dragojevic has succeeded in creating a film that is largely compelling over the long haul, building to climactic sequences that can only be described as devastating, as over-used as that word may be.
Dragojevic is a formidable director of actors, and it's good to see Moncure, as the sole American in the picture, making such a strong impression amid native actors of such presence. "Pretty Village, Pretty Flame" is strong on irony, nuance and telling detail. After one of the Serbs goes on about how Serbia is the oldest state in the world and how Serbs were eating with forks while the Germans and English were still eating with their hands, Dragojevic later shows how swiftly a fork can be turned into a weapon.
Pretty Village, Pretty Flame, 1998. Unrated. A Fox Lorber release of a Cobra Film production in association with MCRS and RTS. Director Srdjan Dragojevic. Producers Goran Bjelogric, Dragan Bjelogoric, Nikola Kojo. Executive producer Milko Josifov. Screenplay by Vanja Bulic, Dragojevic. Cinematographer Dusan Joksimovic. Editor Petar Markovic. Costumes Tanja Dragojevic. Music Laza Ristovski, Aleksander Habic. Production designer Mile Jeremic. Running time: 2 hours, 8 minutes. Dragan Bjelogrlic as Milan. Lisa Moncure as Liza. Nikola Pejakovic as Halil. Dragan Maksimovic as Petar (The Professor).Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times