Pretty Village, Pretty Flame Movie Review

Movie Review by Anthony Leong © Copyright 1999

Pretty Village, Pretty Flame poster

Through the centuries, the Serbs have always defined themselves as a people by the amount of suffering they have endured. Serb history is filled with stories of blood, sacrifice, and the never-ending struggle for independence and self-determination, from the modest beginnings of the independent Serb kingdom in the 11th century, to their brutal extermination by the Nazi-backed Ustashe regime in Croatia during the Second World War. Not surprisingly, the most revered event in Serb history is a defeat, a historical event that embodies their perseverance as a people.

I said to myself no more! They commit genocide over the entire Serbian people, and I sit by calmly. Damn their mercenary souls! No more buddy! Not another German or Muslim soldier will set foot here! No more!

It was in 1389, at Kosovo Polje (the Field of Blackbirds), that the Serb king, Tsar Lazar, was defeated by the army of the Muslim Ottoman Empire. According to legend, the Ottomans offered a reward to Lazar for his surrender, which the Tsar rejected, choosing instead to fight to every last man. And thus began five hundred years of Muslim domination over the Serb people.

Over the centuries, as some of the Slav people of the Balkans converted to Islam, the steadfast Serbs were left at a disadvantage, holding little of the land and wielding little power. By the nineteenth century, the Serbs began to crusade for their political independence, which they partially won in 1815, which was followed by a fully independent Serb state after Russia defeated Turkey in 1878. Unfortunately, it was only a partial victory for the Serbs, since a number of heavily Serb-populated areas within Croatia and Bosnia were given to the Austro-Hungarian Empire as part of the Treaty of Berlin.

Wanting to liberate their people from the remnants of the Ottoman Empire, the Serbs waged the two Balkan Wars of 1912 and 1913, recapturing vast quantities of territory that had been out of their hands since the 14th century. However, the peace was short-lived, with the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, by Gavrilo Princip, a Bosnian Serb nationalist. This incident gave the Austro-Hungarian Empire the necessary pretext to invade Serbia, part of a series of events that ignited the First World War.

With the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman Empires at the end of the First World War, a new Slavic state was created by the cooperation of Croat, Slovenian, and Serb leaders-- The Kingdom of the Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes - which was renamed Yugoslavia in 1929.

But peace was short-lived in the new country of Yugoslavia, as Nazi Germany invaded the country in 1941, and put in place a puppet regime run by Croatian fascists (also known as Ustashas, feared for their telltale black uniforms), the Independent State of Croatia. Under the leadership of Ante Pavelic, it was the mandate of the Ustashas to wipe out the Serb people by killing a third, expelling a third, and converting a third to Catholicism-- it was Pavelic who first instituted the term 'ethnic cleansing'. During Pavelic's regime, it is estimated that between 350,000 and 750,000 Serbs were killed in massacres and concentration camps.

When the Second World War ended in 1945, the Yugoslav Communists, under the leadership of Josep Broz, a half-Slovene half-Croat better known as Tito, instituted a number of sweeping changes aimed at breaking down the ethnic divisions that had plagued the Balkans for so long. Out of the devastation of the Second World War, a single Communist state consisting of six republics emerged, a new Yugoslavia intolerant to nationalist ambitions, governed by 'brotherhood and unity'.

Who are you to talk about honesty, you bloody drivel! Your great honesty... you were always full of that shit. Do you think, Mr. Captain, that one single house we set on fire, or they set on fire, was honestly earned? To hell it was. If it was honest, it wouldn't be so easy to set them on fire. As long as Tito stuffed US dollars up your ass, you blathered about 'Brotherhood and Unity', and smiled at each other. And then the time came to settle the score! But why didn't you do it earlier? Instead, you jacked off for fifty years, drove fancy cars, screwed the best girls, and now, when you can't get it up, you want to be honorable. I shit on that honor of yours and your whole honorable and screwed generation.

Unfortunately, the ethnic tensions never subsided-- they merely went into hibernation, waiting for the right moment to re-emerge. Under Tito, the Serbs saw a number of policies that ran counter to their own interests, particularly the granting of autonomy to two provinces within Serbia during a consitutional reform in 1974. Even though Serbs were in minority in Vojvodina and Kosovo, it was an affront to the Serb people, especially Kosovo, which figured prominently in their spiritual and cultural identity.

The time for change came in the 1980, following the death of Tito and a continuing economic crisis that was enveloping the country. A rotating presidency, while granting equal powers to all republics within Yugoslavia, ended up deadlocking the country's leadership. With their power within the Yugoslavian political process diminishing and a perceived resurgence of nationalist agendas in the other republics, the Serbs sowed the seeds of the most recent series of Balkan conflicts in 1986.

It was that year that the Memorandum of the Serbian Academy of Sciences and Arts first surfaced in Vecernje Novosti, a mass-circulation newspaper. Written by a group of Serbian academics, the document argued that the Serbs were in danger of being wiped out by the economic and political discrimination of Yugoslavia's other ethnic groups, especially in Kosovo and Croatia. It further argued that the Serbs had been unjustly treated since the end of the Second World War, and that drastic measures had to be taken in order to safeguard the Serbian identity, which was no longer compatible with the existing political structure in Yugoslavia.

Except during the period of the NDH (the Independent State of Croatia, a puppet regime proclaimed by the pro-Nazi Ustashe), Serbs in Croatia have never been as endangered as they are today. The resolution of their national status must be a top priority political question. If a solution is not found, the consequences will be damaging on many levels, not only for relations within Croatia, but also for all of Yugoslavia.

- excerpt from the Memorandum of the Serbian Academy of Sciences and Arts

Seizing upon the nationalist sentiments roused by the Memorandum, and in particular the controversy over Kosovar autonomy, Slobodan Milosevic, the President of the Serbian Communist Party, wrestled control of the Serbian government from the Communists, and Serbia became the new seat of power in Yugoslavia. As he promised, one of his first duties as leader was to ram through constitutional change that stripped Kosovo and Vojvodina of their autonomy, which was completed in 1989, six hundred years after the defeat of Tsar Lazar in Kosovo Polje.

You should stay here. This is your land. These are your houses. Your meadows and gardens. Your memories. You shouldn't abandon your land just because it's difficult to live, because you are pressured by injustice and degradation. It was never part of the Serbian and Montenegrin character to give up in the face of obstacles, to demobilize when it's time to fight. You should stay here for the sake of your ancestors and descendants. Otherwise your ancestors would be defiled and descendants disappointed. But I don't suggest that you stay, endure, and tolerate a situation you're not satisfied with. On the contrary, you should change it with the rest of the progressive people here, in Serbia and in Yugoslavia.

- speech by Slobodan Milosevic, addressing Serbs at Kosovo Polje on April 24, 1987

Meanwhile, elsewhere in Yugoslavia, Croatian nationalism was in resurgence, a direct response to the troubling developments in Serbia. Not wanting to become a part of a Serb-dominated Yugoslavia, the Croats, under the leadership of Franjo Tudjman, started on the road to the creation of an independent Croat state. In 1990, Tudjman's government began a systematic campaign aimed at removing Serb elements from within Croatian institutions, which included widespread layoffs of Serbs from the civil service and the police, and the attempted coup of the Serb-inhabited Krajina region of Southern Croatia. Naturally, the Serbs back in Serbia saw the events unfolding within Croatia as an unequivocal threat to Serb nationhood and prosperity. And thus, a series of catastrophic events unfolded, events that would forever alter the shape of the Balkans for the next decade, with wars waged in Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia-Hercegovina, and most recently, Kosovo.

With the clouds of war figuring prominently in the Balkan consciousness, it is not surprising that films about the war have been a mainstay in Balkan cinema in the past decade. Among the films to have emerged from the filmmakers of the former Yugoslavia include the antiwar epic "Vukovar", the esoteric "Before the Rain", the satiric "Underground", and the recent allegorical tale of "Balkan Cabaret". Another anti-war epic to emerge from the ashes of war was "Pretty Village, Pretty Flame", a 1996 film that made its debut on these shores during the 1997 Philadelphia Festival of World Cinema. Though it is told primarily from the Serbian point-of-view, director Srdjan Dragojevic offers a resounding non-partisan statement that visibly illustrates the consequences and senseless depravity of war, regardless of what side one chooses to fight for.

There's an ogre asleep inside.
Is it the Devil?
He's asleep?
And if he wakes up, he'll eat up the village and set the houses on fire.
Halil, I'd better take Grandma's knife.
Forget the knife... I'll take my Grandma's gun. I know where she hides it.
Let's go... we'll come back when we're better armed.
The cast of Pretty Village, Pretty Flame

Like the dismembered nation from which it came, "Pretty Village, Pretty Flame" is told through a fractured narrative that crisscrosses through four different time periods between 1971 and 1992, and stretches from the killing fields of Bosnia-Hercegovina to the relative comfort of a Belgrade hospital. Beginning in 1971 with a ceremony ushering the opening of the 'Brotherhood and Unity' tunnel somewhere in Bosnia-Hercegovina, the film traces the tunnel's auspicious inauguration, its eventual abandonment by 1980, and finally its use by an ambushed Serb military unit during the Bosnian war of the early Nineties. Throughout the film, our emotional anchors are Halil (Nikola Pejakovic), a Muslim, and Milan (Dragan Bjelogrlic), a Serb, who grow up from being boyhood friends daring each other to venture into the abandoned tunnel, to becoming bitter enemies on opposing sides.

Although the bulk of the film takes place in the damp and dark confines of the tunnel in which Milan's unit takes refuge, the wandering camera jumps hoops shifting backwards and forward in time to provide back-story for the characters and attach significance to certain events. Each one of the men in Milan's unit have their own reasons for fighting in the Bosnian war, and very few of them are there merely to 'slaughter Muslims': the aging captain is there out of some misguided desire to preserve Marshal Tito's Yugoslavia, Speedy was conscripted after being arrested for being a heroin junkie, and yet another is taking the place of his younger brother, who was drafted by the Serbian-dominated Yugoslav National Army. As the film recounts their battle for survival against the encircling Muslim forces, Milan and his fellow soldiers reflect on both their lives prior to the war and the seemingly-criminal war they are fighting now.

We noticed one night when we were fooling around, a village. Our cannon was staring at it. It was still in flames. And every night afterwards, at the same time, villages were ablaze on the horizon. We were surrounded by a great circle of strange celebrations going on in all those places burning in front of us. And the flames just kept rising up, licking at the clouds. One village in particular looked very gay. A few houses at the bottom of an ugly little valley that you wouldn't notice during the day. You can't imagine what it looked like at night... when it burned.

In addition to the film's nonlinear structure, Dragojevic instills a number of stylistic touches to convey both the absurdity of the war itself, and lighten the relentlessly grim atmosphere of the story. There are a number of tongue-in-cheek vignettes used by Dragojevic, such as a mock newsreel that opens the film, and a 'rock-n-roll' montage of 'ethnic cleansing'. In addition, though the scenes of 'ethnic cleansing' are shown from the Serbian perspective, they are a decidedly backhanded swipe at the perverse consequences of unbridled patriotism (some of the burning villages are actual 'cleansed' villages in Bosnia).

Pretty villages are pretty when they burn. Ugly ones stay ugly, even when they burn.

The ensemble of actors deliver a series of memorable performances, and it is their earnest efforts that bring the requisite level of humanity and emotional poise to the film, which is important since it is through their eyes that the audience sees the horror. Their scenes effectively communicate the hopes, dreams, and fears of these men, and it is difficult to sit through this film and not be moved. The only noticeable flaw with "Pretty Village, Pretty Flame" is the lack of interaction between Milan and Halil in the present (their relationship is detailed in-depth through flashbacks). As Milan's unit is trapped in the tunnel, they are threatened by the disembodied voices of the Muslim forces surrounding them, which ends up distancing the conflict-- the emotional impact would have been greater had Milan and Hilal had more face-to-face interaction.

They say that war brings out the best and worst in man. What is the best?

In its limited theatrical run, very few had the chance to see this masterpiece, but now with its second chance on video and DVD, this is one film that should not be missed. Qualms aside, "Pretty Village, Pretty Flame" is a disturbing yet insightful film into the Serb psyche and illustrates how war, no matter what the root cause or noble intentions of its combatants, can never justify the senseless depravity that it unleashes.

What's the name of this village?
Who gives a shit!
We set a place on fire, and don't even know its name. We're killing each other for a fistful of ashes.

Images courtesy of UGC Worldwide Distribution. All rights reserved.

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