War movies have a tendency to be grandiose and didactic ("Saving Private Ryan"), action-packed and heroic ("Behind Enemy Lines"), maudlin and self-important ("Life Is Beautiful") -- or some combination thereof. But "No Man's Land" is none of the above, and above them all in its brilliant, unpretentious simplicity.
A small-scale battlefield farce, it speaks volumes about the absurdities of modern ethnic conflicts in the age of ever-present but under-effective UN Peacekeepers -- and it does so without soap box speeches, overblown battle sequences or playing any metaphorical violins.
Bosnian writer-director Danis Tanovic boils down the ironic truths of centuries-old enmity in his homeland and presents them in a meaningfully funny story about two soldiers from opposite sides of the war, trapped together between enemy lines in an abandoned trench.
Ciki (Branko Djuric) is a weary, aged-beyond-his-years Bosnian guerilla. Nino (Rene Bitorajac) is an eager, by-the-book Serbian recruit, so fresh from training his uniform is still as crisp as his militaristic attitude. And from the moment they come face-to-face, a standoff ensues inside and outside the DMZ furrow.
Even as they begin to find each other surprisingly amiable, the two soldiers are always primed for an argument about who started the war and are always looking to get the upper hand. More than once the balance of power shifts (in a struggle for a gun, for example) and one will send the other to the top of the trench -- in his underwear (i.e. sans an identifying uniform) -- to see if anyone starts firing.
Neither the Bosnians (100 yards away to one side) nor the Serbs (100 yards away to the other) are willing to risk men for a rescue because neither side knows exactly who's in there. When a near-naked man appears in their binoculars, running back and forth atop the trench, a commander will shrug and say, "I'll alert HQ. Call me if there's any change."
Meanwhile back in the disputed gully, a third trapped man compounds their predicament. Cera (Filip Sovagovic), Ciki's Bosnian compatriot who actually landed in the trench first, is lying on a land mine. If he moves, they're all dead.
Director Tanovic never dismisses the seriousness of warfare. Instead he questions the point of it all within the context of his comedy, while finding subtle moments of poignancy throughout the picture, as when Ciki takes a look at the mine under his friend, and in moving the man's arm brings a tightly gripped photo of his girlfriend into the frame.
Tanovic also has a lot of fun at the expense of the United Nations and the international press. Katrin Cartlidge ("From Hell," "Breaking the Waves") gives a deliciously tart performance as an aggressive, Christiane Amanpour-style reporter whose high-profile scoop on the incident makes the UN commander in the region (a sardonically pompous Simon Callow, "Shakespeare In Love") look up from his secretary's cleavage and start spinning damage control.
When Peacekeepers arrive ("Here come the Smurfs!" declares a soldier) to monitor the situation, the whole mess becomes embroiled in bureaucracy and face-saving measures. "Get back into the trench, pretend to be busy," Callow tells a bomb expert who says he can't save the soldier on the mine. "Buy us some time."
In the entertaining serio-comic, anti-war tradition of "Dr. Strangelove" and "Catch-22," but to a more modest and authentic degree, "No Man's Land" isn't a great war movie because it blows your mind by making you feel or making you think. It's a great war movie because it's confident enough in its emotions and convictions to focus on the laughs, knowing you'll get the message anyway.