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First REVIEWS for Bridges of Sarajevo

Cannes Film Review: ‘The Bridges of Sarajevo’

VARIETY May 30, 2014 | By Jay Weissberg

Thirteen directors reflect on the onset of WWI in this wildly uneven omnibus.

Thirteen directors respond to Sarajevo’s position as nexus of conflict in the 20th century in “The Bridges of Sarajevo,” a wildly uneven omnibus commissioned to coincide with the 100th anniversary of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and the outbreak of WWI. The brainchild of French critic Jean-Michel Frodon, the pic combines a wide range of perspectives and styles, yet less than a handful feel worthy of their makers, and only Cristi Puiu’s exceptionally clever, wickedly funny short addresses broader issues with intelligence. Connected by generically pleasant if obvious animated interstitials, these “Bridges” won’t span temporal planes beyond the usual fest rotation.

Slated for French release in early July, “Sarajevo” will see more traction via streaming platforms, allowing partisans of particular directors the opportunity to pick and choose their masters (Godard or Meier?). Frodon’s project should ideally have been a summation, or at least a creative revisiting, of the particular qualities that made Sarajevo such a draw for filmmakers and intellectuals during the fratricidal Bosnian War of the 1990s, yet whether cerebral or emotional, most of the contributions here do little to further the discourse, and those dealing with the First World War offer no more than a perfunctory nod to the bloodiest conflagration of the last century.

Things get off to an unexceptional start with Kamen Kalev’s “My Dear Night,” in which Franz Ferdinand (Samuel Finzi) engages with an aide-de-camp (Gilles Tschudi) about fate and free will, while the archduke’s wife, Sophie (Gergana Pletnyova), begs him not to drive through the Sarajevo streets. The conversation is a reworking of Caesar and Calpurnia’s scenes in Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar,” culminating in the Austrian couple’s murder, and while Kalev makes it stylish, it also feels far too easy.

Vladimir Perisic’s “Our Shadows Will” is considerably more experimental, opening with a black screen and a young man’s voice speaking lines that assassin Gavrilo Princip, then 19, said at his trial. The empty frame shifts to the stacks of a library, where several young men, presumably modern representations of the archduke’s conspirators, wander about, their off-camera whispers speaking of Yugoslavian unity. The locale references the tragic burning of Bosnia’s great national library in 1992, as does Marc Recha’s later entry in the omnibus, yet it’s all too obtuse and offers no insight into questionable parallels between Princip’s anarchist cell and post-Tito nationalist fanatics.

“The Outpost,” set in the Italian Dolomites during WWI, is one of two shorts that don’t allude to Sarajevo, focusing on a lieutenant pressing a subordinate into a suicide mission to capture a sniper. At the end, helmer Leonardo Di Costanzo (“The Interval”) includes statistics relating to the number of Italian soldiers detained for insubordination or desertion; such a didactic, straightforward approach would be better in a film made for high-school students. Angela Schanelec (“Orly”) shifts to the avant-garde with “Princip, Text,” in which a couple read aloud from Princip’s trial statements, one speaking in Serbian and the other translating into German. Like Perisic’s entry, this feels like an exercise rather than a meaningful comment on a world-changing event.

Fortunately it’s followed by Puiu’s “Das Spektrum Europas,” hands down the best entry in the omnibus. Consisting of two shots, the short is a Christmastime conversation in bed between a husband and wife (stage actors Marian Ralea and Valeria Seciu) as she reads aloud from Hermann Keyserling’s 1928 book “Das Spektrum Europa,” in which the German philosopher reduced most of southeastern Europe to unflattering national stereotypes. The husband brings his own extreme prejudices to bear while arguing against Keyserling’s categorizations, devolving into a hilarious Romanian equivalent of Tom Lehrer’s “National Brotherhood Week.” Although Sarajevo and the wars aren’t mentioned, Puiu’s entry says more about the pernicious persistence of nationalism than all the others combined, and with wit and humor.

Following this with Jean-Luc Godard’s “The Bridge of Sighs” shows the range of the project’s commissions, but the French icon delivers a mere footnote to his well-documented cinematic engagement with Sarajevo, including bits from his shorts “Ecce homo” and “Je vous salue, Sarajevo” in a collage of semi-articulate thoughts about violence, ethnic cleansing and the morality of photographing tragedy. Sergei Loznitsa’s elegant, wordless “Reflections” superimposes shots of Bosnian fighters taken by Milomir Kovacevic in 1992 over images of the city today, its still battle-scarred structures bearing haunting witness to the recent past.

Recha’s gently impressionistic “Zan’s Journey” begins a tonal shift largely continued by the remaining titles, in which characters look back at Sarajevo with wounded nostalgia. Haris (Zlatko Dzinovic) tells younger brother Zan (Mak Dzinovic) about life in Sarajevo before they fled to Spain, and how their father could save only one book from the ruins of the National Library. Aida Begic (“Children of Sarajevo”) makes “Album” a compendium of older voices recounting the hunger and desperation of the siege years, accompanied, like “Reflections,” with shots of the city now.

Displacement is a theme in “Sara and Her Mother,” from Portugal’s Teresa Villaverde (“Trance”), in which a woman silently recalls the blockade years as she packs books she had as a child during the war. Vincenzo Marra’s “The Bridge” sticks to a classic narrative structure and is the most artificially sentimental of the bunch, about a Christian-Muslim couple (Fatima Nejmarlija and Majo Ivkovic) who fled Sarajevo and haven’t been back in 20 years. When his father dies, she insists they return, but survivor’s guilt has eaten away his resolve. A nice shot of the woman praying in Rome’s Ara Coeli before the tomb of Catherine, queen of Bosnia, attests to the historic connection between Bosnia and Rome but will be a mystery to the uninformed.

A 5-year-old living with his grandmother makes the Sarajevo streets his own in Isild Le Besco’s charming “Little Boy,” an ode to childhood resiliency and the promise of a generation less tainted by conflict. Finally, Ursula Meier’s “Quiet Mujo” also focuses on a child, via the bittersweet story of Mujo (Vladan Kovacevic), searching for a wayward soccer ball in a cemetery crowded with Christian and Muslim victims of the Bosnian War.

Visuals are a major plus, boasting contributions by such master lensers as Agnes Godard, Luca Bigazzi and Rui Pocas, yet as with most compendiums, their work is likely best appreciated when considered as individual shorts. The segments are connected by animated footage that starts as linking hands, turns into a bridge, is destroyed by war, and is remade by linking hands. Luckily, most of the helmers don’t have quite such a facile conception of war and renewal.

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'Bridges of Sarajevo': Cannes Review

HOLLYWOOD REPORTER May 23, 2014 | By Boyd van Hoeij

This omnibus film about the Bosnian capital contains short films directed by the likes of Jean-Luc Godard, Cristi Puiu, Sergei Loznitsa, Ursula Meier and local director Aida Begic.

CANNES – The Bosnian capital is seen through 13 personal prisms in the omnibus film Bridges of Sarajevo, which includes contributions from directors ranging from Ukrainian director Sergei Loznitsa to Jean-Luc Godard and Ursula Meier, both from Switzerland, to Italians Leonardo Di Costanzo and Vincenzo Marra and local talent Aida Begic.

The artistic direction of this ambitious but hugely uneven project was handled by Jean-Michel Frodon, the former Cahiers du cinema critic who now teaches in Paris, at St. Andrews and at the Film Factory in Sarajevo. Bridges of Sarajevo will be screened as part of the Sarajevo: Heart of Europe celebration in June, which is part of the centenary commemorations of WWI, and will be released in France on July 2. It had its world premiere as a Special Screening at the Cannes Film Festival and should make a modest tour of the festival circuit before segueing to small-screen formats, with VOD potentially offering viewers the possibility to check out only the segments of their choice.

The film opens with My Dear Night (Liebe Nacht), from Bulgarian director Kamen Kalev (Eastern Plays), which immediately plunges viewers into the events leading up to the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria in Sarajevo in 1914, which would kick off the Great War. In his German-language contribution, Kalev has chosen a point-of-view close to the Archduke himself, who nobly if rather naively -- in hindsight -- states: "My destiny is my responsibility.”

It’s a logical starting point for this series of shorts that look at Sarajevo over the past 100 or so years, with the second short, Our Shadows’ Will, from Serbian director Vladimir Perisic (Ordinary People), looking at some of the reasons behind the assassination, though Perisic opts for a semi-experimental way to broach the subject, showing young, contemporary actors in a studio, reading texts from the assassins and people in the circles in which they moved, though they are not directly synched to the audio of the voice-over, which creates a distancing effect. It’s a somewhat opaque approach but still a courageous choice from Perisic, given the fact that it was perhaps somewhat conveniently assumed by Austrian authorities that the Kingdom of Serbia was behind the assassination (and thus offered a valid reason for a war), a fact still heatedly debated in the Balkans today.

Continuing chronologically, Costanzo looks at Italian soldiers on the ground during WWI, in which almost 6 million Italian soldiers fought, in his The Outpost (L’avamposto),an intimate look at a couple of soldiers who are sent out to kill a sniper, with one of them deserting. It’s a pretty straightforward historical piece of drama, like the opening short, and both are nicely produced but still somewhat musty and lacking in urgency or drama, despite all the gunfire.

Things jump to the present in the German-language Princip, Text, from German actress-directorAngela Schanelec (Places in Cities), which connects with Perisic’s film in that sense that here too, texts about the assassination are read, though there’s an element of translation at work here as well, though it’s never really clear what the short is trying to say. Also looking back at history is Christmas Eve from Romanian director Cristi Puiu (The Death of Mr Lazarescu), whose short looks at an elderly Romanian couple in bed, discussing an old history book that might have predicted some events. Puiu, shooting with an immobile camera in the boxy 4:3 aspect ratio, lets his trademark black humor do most of the heaving lifting here.

Jean-Luc Godard is no stranger to the subject of Sarajevo, having tackled the most recent Balkan conflict as early as 1993, in his Je vous salue, Sarajevo, and his omnibus entry, The Bridge of Sighs (Le Pont des soupirs), is a typical collage work that combines many influences into a cacophonous whole that's finally too short to be able to delve into anything at length, substituting semi-provocative statements for developed ideas.

Ukrainian director Sergei Loznitsa’s Reflections ranks, together with the closing short, Quiet Mujo, from Swiss director Ursula Meier, as the best the omnibus has to offer. Loznitsa, who’s recently made such fiction features as My Joy and In the Fog, here returns to his documentary roots for a short that’s extremely simple and elegant in its execution, as it shows photographs of soldiers during the wars that would lead to the breakup of Yugoslavia, superimposed on shots of the sunny streets of Sarajevo, effectively inviting the audience to contemplate what these men fought for but also what was destroyed or got suspended for the long duration of the war.

Something similar happens in Album, the entry from local director Aida Begic (Snow), in which a voice-over recounting very specific memories of the war are combined with images, almost all of the in black and white, that are artfully edited together but don’t always directly relate with what’s being discussed. What emerges most clearly from her segment is the sense that, in wartime, people start to focus on very specific things that they try to cling to in order to not go crazy, such as the woman who remembers which foodstuffs -- de-wormed rice, dried beans -- where available for how many months on end, or the wife whose biggest regret of the war was the moment she had to burn her fine red shoes in the fire because there was nothing left to feed the fire.

Zan’s Journey (El viatge de Zan), from Catalan director Marc Recha (August Days), and The Bridge (Il Ponte) from Italian filmmaker Vincenzo Marra (The Session Is Open, The Trial Begins) look at exiled Bosnians in Catalonia and Rome, respectively, with Recha’s more impressionistic film turning on the fate of the books of the Sarajevo Library, while Marra’s film, without a doubt the most straightforward of the bunch, is about a man who settled with his wife in Italy and who doesn’t dare to go back even for his father’s funeral because of what people might think of the fact that he dared to leave Sarajevo when it most needed him.  

Children play an important role in three shorts directed by women: Little Boy, from French actress-director (and sister of Maiwenn) Isild Le BescoSarah and her Mother, from Portuguese filmmakerTeresa Villaverde (Trance) and Meier’s closing short, Quiet Mujo. Le Besco sticks close to the point-of-view of the title character, the offspring of a Muslim father and Serbian mother, who lives with his grandma and takes care of lots of cats and dogs around the city. It’s a cute segment with slightly darker undercurrents, as is Sarah, whose mother marked the books she read during the war (books seem to have represented something else many characters tried to hold onto during the conflict, a clear testament to the power of fiction).

Finally, Quiet Mujo looks at the title character, a boy whose soccer ball ends up on the cemetery next to the field where he’s practicing and who there comes into contact with a visiting mourner. At once poetic, powerful and almost documentary-like in the ordinariness of its premise and the naturalness of its execution, Mujo packs a serious wallop while suggesting volumes about how long-ago wars continue to influence the present for some.

Technically, the film is often gorgeous to look at, as some of the world's finest cinematographers, including Agnes Godard, Luca Bigazzi, Oleg Mutu and Rui Pocas each shot a segment. Very short animated sequences, by Francois Schuiten and Luis da Matta Almeida, ineffectively try to instill a sense of coherency and continuity between each of the very different shorts.

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