The abomination of war is accentuated in civil war; Pretty Village, Pretty Flame (original title translates better as Beautiful villages burn beautifully) covers the post-Yugoslavian war of the 1990s that foreshadowed the current ‘conflict’ between ‘the west’ and Muslims. It’s complex structure focuses on a band of Bosnian-Serb militia who, amongst other things, burn Muslim villages. The main protagonist is Milan who, in pre-war years, ran a business with his Bosniak (Bosnian-Muslim) mate. After scene setting, with a newsreel about the Brotherhood and Unity (such irony runs throughout the film) tunnel first opened in the 1970s, most of the plot takes place 20 years later in the dilapidated and unfinished tunnel as the militia seek shelter from the Bosniak army. Much of the narrative features flashbacks of how the disparate members of the militia joined up from the viewpoint of a number of them recuperating, after the even, in hospital. Unsurprisingly the film divided opinion when it was release. In an excellent article Igor Krstic (http://www.kinoeye.org/03/10/celluloidtinderbox.php) notes that although Croatian critics dubbed the film pro-Serbian (Croatia was also embroiled in the war against Serbs/Serbia) it was also the first Serbian film to be successful in neighbouring countries after the war ended. While it’s easy to see why the film appears to be pro-Serbian, as we rarely get any other view than the militia’s, Krstic also demonstrates the film’s nuances; principally that the ragtag bunch of militia are not portrayed as likeable characters and in this the film is also challenging Serbia’s national mythology. One of the ways this is done is through the casting of Velimir Bata Zivojinovic as the unit’s commander; Zivojinovic starred in many Partisan films that were important in the myth-making of Tito’s Yugoslavia. That said I did find the film disturbing. The Muslims who surround the militia are entirely dehumanised, Krstic himself points out that this is drawing of tropes of Hollywood’s representation of the Vietnam war where ‘Charlie’ was an invisible presence in the jungle. Krstic fails, however, to note that this is in itself racist – the enemy as the monstrous Other. Does that make the film racist? Not necessarily as it could be argued that this is a film from the Serbian perspective; no doubt being surrounded by others who want to kill you is a terrifying experience and the enemy will seem monstrous. This is powerful film-making and draws upon the absurdist vein of Catch 22 and MASH; it’s a bleakly occasionally comic portrayal of the war that is brilliantly made and uncomfortably to view from a political standpoint.
As mentioned in the previous post, it’s arguable that TV’s where it’s ‘at’ at the moment and Jane Campion directed, and co-wrote, this detective six parter so it is inevitably worth watching. However… Worth watching because we can be sure that Campion would put an interesting feminist spin on the genre and offer a thought-provoking narrative. And so she does but not wholly successfully. Part of the problem for me is Elizabeth Moss in the lead; she never convinced me (though I think she’s excellent as Peggy in Mad Men), sometimes what appeared to be a supercilious smile infected her expression. . And then there’s the elliptical finale with its grand revelation that, in arthouse style, is under-played. In arthouse film such under-playing (eg the cutaway when Al is shot and the barely glimpsed debauchery) usually adds power; maybe it’s TV’s small screen that diminishes such devices.
That said, it is beautifully mounted, the Kiwi locations are stunningly shot and Peter Mullan refines his vile persona to great effect as the patriarch, Matt. Maybe I felt deflated at the end because the ‘shock’ is, once again, sexual abuse of children. Unfortunately, with wider reporting, that has now become too commonplace to be truly shocking, disgusting as it is. Maybe the focus could have been more on Matt’s clan – they were disturbing enough anyway!
I was afraid that The Returned would suffer from Lost-like credibility problems in trying to explain the unexplainable, however I think the last episode sealed the brilliance of this series. Internet traffic suggests that many were disappointed by the lack of a meta-narrative that would explain everything; however I think that’s slightly naive in the commercially-driven context of television as the producers were always going to spin it out for a second series if audiences were high enough. But, by nailing the programme to the zombie genre, as the last episode did, I think the makers cleverly side-stepped the need for an explanation; zombie texts don’t need to explain why the zombies exist. This irrationality of the genre is exactly why it can be so terrifying.
On the other hand, it is understandable that audiences would expect an explanation for the ‘returned’ as most of the episodes are couched in a realist-melodrama mode that focuses upon raw relationships. The soap-like structure of several threads and the sexual-marital-relationships narrative problems situate The Returned firmly within melodrama. At first the returned are ‘uncanny’ visitors that highlight past grief and call into question, particularly for Adele and Simon, current relationships. As the series progressed, the horror elements became stronger, particularly when Julie and Laure tried to escape only to find themselves in some kind of self-contained universe. The climax, with the zombies slowly and inexorably approaching, situated the programme firmly within the zombie sub genre.
Other strengths, apart from narrative, of The Returned include the direction which, in common with much contemporary ‘quality TV’, is often cinematic in its ambition. This is complemented by the marvellous settings and cinematography. In addition, I thought most of the performances, from a largely ‘unknown’ cast, to be superb. Clotilde Hesme (Adele) was a standout, her pale features emphasising her fragility and her expression always seeming to be on the verge of cracking.
It will be interesting to see whether season two can continue to tread the line between the emotional realism of the relationships, or whether the ‘unexplainable’ narratives get out of control. In a year of a lot of terrific television (The Fall, Borgen 2, Homeland 2, Spiral 4) The Returned adds to the argument that television is superseding film in being the most interesting medium of our times.