Vukovar (Serbia-Croatia/Italy, 1994)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

If you turn on the evening news these days, one of the first images you're likely to see will originate from the devastated former Yugoslavia, where centuries-old hatreds have boiled over to ignite a scenario of unspeakable horror. Yet the sights of Bosnia, presented by TV as gruesomely tantalizing tidbits of violence and death, rarely provoke a reaction from the casual viewer. That's how it has always been with television news programs, however -- their coverage of any event, designed for those with limited attention spans, is superficial in the extreme. It's nearly impossible to generate any strong feeling for a situation, no matter how cruel or inhumane it is, when all you get is a quick series of MTV-like clips.

So, when it comes to the weightier matters of life, movies often step in where "real life" television leaves off. Films like The Killing Fields, Apocalypse Now, Platoon, Beyond Rangoon, Heaven and Earth, Before the Rain, Cry The Beloved Country, Schindler's List, and dozens of others have gone "behind the scenes" of a news story to animate it, often in gut-wrenching detail. Sure, all those motion pictures are, to one degree or another, fictionalized accounts of war and/or social injustice, but they give form to the tragedy. Through their characters, who come to mean something to the viewer, the indifferent images of TV take on a personal aspect. This is exactly the intent of Vukovar, a rare, even-handed account of the conflict ripping apart Bosnia. This tale of loss, anguish, horror, and futility is powerful beyond words.

Vukovar was filmed during 1994 in strife-torn Bosnia. The city of Vukovar, from which the movie takes its name, was a thriving home to 50,000 Serbs and Croats before the war. Now, fewer than 3000 survivors remain. Houses and businesses have been razed, and a pall of death and smoke lies over the ruins. Vukovar's cameras catch all of this. Director Boro Draskovic chose to produce his movie in the former Yugoslavia because he believed no other part of the world could adequately capture his homeland's anguish. So, at peril to cast and crew, who were occasionally fired upon by snipers, the story of two fictional citizens of Vukovar was committed to the screen. It's a sobering consideration to recognize that the background of this picture is not a movie set. Often during Vukovar, the line between documentary and fiction becomes very blurred.

Make no mistake, however -- Vukovar is not a sterile examination of the evils of war, nor is it a political diatribe. Draskovic has a story to tell, and, while his narrative of two lovers is symbolic of nations, the intimate aspects of the movie remind one of a Shakespearean tragedy, with elements of "Romeo and Juliet" (the doomed romance), "MacBeth" (the three witches stirring an evil brew in their cauldron), and even "Julius Caesar" ("The Dogs of War"). At times, the musical score is almost operatic in nature, borrowing heavily from, among others, Mozart.

At the outset of the film, Ana (the stunning Mirjana Jokovic) and Toma (Boris Isakovic) are happy and in love. With the news that the Berlin Wall has fallen, they rejoice in the possibility of a freer world. Then, even as they marry and prepare to start a family, conflict breaks out across the country. Ana, a Croat, and Toma, a Serb, find themselves unwillingly allied with opposing sides. For Ana, it is a time of great personal loss. When Toma leaves home to join the army and her parents are killed, the young woman finds herself alone in a suddenly strange and frightening country where rape, robbery, and murder are everyday realities. Soon, as a reunion with her husband seems increasingly less likely, Ana struggles on only so that her unborn child will not enter the world as a corpse.

If this was a Hollywood story, perhaps the lovers would be reunited at the end to live happily ever after. But the film makers hail from Bosnia, and Vukovar has no more joy in it than current events permit. It is a grim story, but hardly more so than Schindler's List. The biggest difference, of course, is the separate historical contexts into which the films fit: the reality of Schindler's List is past; the reality of Vukovar goes on, and, if this movie and the short TV news snippets can be believed, the end may not be as close as the signing of a peace treaty.

Distributors like Miramax and Fine Line have shied away from Vukovar, fearing a repeat of what occurred with 1995's Before the Rain, a similarly-themed movie that died at the box office. But Vukovar is a far more devastating experience, and those who do not avoid emotionally-draining features should rejoice that this one, a film festival darling (twelve awards in thirty-five entries), will receive national distribution (albeit of a limited sort). A stunning composition of fact and fiction, Vukovar deserves every accolade it collects. Yet perhaps the most telling point is that nearly every showing concludes with a nonplused audience sitting in unbroken silence through the end credits.

Vukovar (Serbia-Croatia/Italy, 1994)

Director: Boro Draskovic
Cast: Mirjana Jokovic, Boris Isakovic
Screenplay: Boro and Maja Draskovic
Cinematography: Aleksander Perkovic
U.S. Distributor: Tara Releasing
Run Time: 1:36
U.S. Release Date: -
MPAA Rating: "NR" (Violence, Profanity, Sexual Situations, Nudity)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: English subtitled Serbian and Croatian
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1