Pretty Village, Pretty Flame (Bosnia, 1996)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Since 1992, when the war in Bosnia began, we in the West have been inundated with images of unbelievable carnage -- photographs and videotapes of scenes so horrifying that we're almost afraid to believe them. Pretty Village, Pretty Flame takes us into the Serbo-Croatian conflict in a powerful condemnation of war that shares several qualities with the German films Das Boot and Stalingrad. Like those two movies, this one causes viewers to think long and hard about the real price of war, and leaves a lingering image in the mind that cannot be easily banished.

Pretty Village, Pretty Flame is based on a true event. It opens in 1971 with a mock newsreel depicting the ribbon-cutting ceremony for the "Brotherhood and Unity Tunnel." Ten years later, the unfinished tunnel stands abandoned and ignored. Two boys, a Muslim named Halil and a Serb named Milan, play nearby and try to frighten each other with tales of the ogre who lives inside. By the time war breaks out in the early '90s, Halil and Milan find themselves on opposite sides. When his platoon is ambushed, Milan leads the survivors into the tunnel for refuge. Outside, Halil's band waits patiently, biding their time until the Serbs run out of water and must emerge to face their deaths.

Pretty Village, Pretty Flame is told in a non-chronological fashion that makes a film like Pulp Fiction seem linear. The movie jumps freely across no fewer than four time lines (1980, 1992, and two different segments of 1994). The majority of the scenes take place while the soldiers are trapped in the tunnel. There are also numerous flashbacks to the beginning of the war and a time before the conflict, as well as flash-forwards to a military hospital. At first, all of this jumping around can be very confusing, especially before you know the individuals, but, as the film progresses, it becomes clear how powerful this technique is in explaining events and developing characters.

The film is a variation of the "trapped in a foxhole" story. Sandwiched in between bursts of fighting are lengthy sequences of character interaction as the disparate members of the platoon (plus an American photojournalist who doesn't speak Serbian) come to grips with their prejudices against each other, their feelings about war, and, most importantly, their fear of death. Pretty Village, Pretty Flame is about seven men and one women ("Snow White and the seven dwarves," one of the soldiers quips) facing their own mortality.

Director Srdjan Dragojevic does not spare his audience the horrors of war (in fact, some of the scenes showing villages burning is actual footage, not a re-creation), and those of a squeamish nature may find aspects of this film hard to watch. Surprisingly, the most disturbing scene doesn't involve blood or gore. As the standoff in the tunnel becomes prolonged, the men need water. With none available, they resort to drinking urine.

Each member of the ensemble cast gives a fine performance, resulting in a group of characters that we understand and care about. As they prepare for the seemingly-inevitable end, they reminisce about the past, joke about life and sex, and gradually put aside their dislike for each other. They are people with a past and no future, and each of them recognizes that.

Gallows humor abounds. Dragojevic avoids making Pretty Village, Pretty Flame a complete downer by injecting elements of black comedy. The characters laugh in spite of their circumstances, and so does the audience. It's a much-needed form of release. Pretty Village, Pretty Flame stirs some deep emotions, and it would be torturous to sit through it without an occasional break from the claustrophobic tension and suspense. The brilliance of Dragovjevic's approach is that he understands this need and provides an outlet for it.

Although Pretty Village, Pretty Flame is a much different film from another feature about the war in Bosnia, Vukovar, both movies share a similar theme about the unacceptable human toll of war. Lives are lost, to be certain, but the greatest price paid is the damage done to the soul. War strips away humanity, leaving behind something twisted and ugly. Pretty Village, Pretty Flame is about finding that which was lost in the most unexpected of places -- dim, decaying tunnel in the shadow of the Grim Reaper. If you have an opportunity to see this movie, it is an experience not to be missed.

Pretty Village, Pretty Flame (Bosnia, 1996)

Run Time: 2:15
U.S. Release Date: -
MPAA Rating: "NR" (Violence, Profanity, Sexual Content)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: In English and Serbian with English subtitles
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1