No Man's Land Review

In the middle of the Bosnian conflict in 1993, a Bosnian relief team get lost in the dark in the mist. When dawn breaks the team are shot at and almost wiped-out. One survivor, Ciki makes it to a trench in no-man’s land between the two forces. Two soldiers are sent out to check that they have all been killed and Nino gets himself captured by the wounded man. Trapped in a trench in no-man’s land they are targets for both sides, neither of whom know who occupies the middle trench, but can’t take the risk that it could be the enemy. In the trench meanwhile, tensions run even higher when a booby-trapped body threatens to make the situation even more deadly.

The film doesn’t limit itself to the drama in the trench but stretches it out to poke fun and make serious criticism of military bureaucracy and the media. Also stuck figuratively in the middle are the UN Peace Keeping Force (nicknamed ‘Smurfs’ because of their blue and white uniform), hampered by language difficulties and superiors who want to keep out of trouble and keep face when confronted by the media. As well as being a device to expand the action outside the trench, having a news reporter cover the event pushes the film along, adds a new dimension to the film and cleverly, provides an opportunity to explain in layman’s terms, the origins of the conflict through a news report.

The situation is clearly presented right from the start and you are thrown right into the film. The central roles are brilliantly played by Branko Djuric and Rene Bitorajac, effectively delivering their sharp, concise and witty dialogue. This momentum is maintained thanks to a strong, tight script, well-paced unfolding of events and some keenly observed characterisation. The film cleverly divests the situation of any glamorous aspect or heroic endeavour, bringing it down to a purely human level, illustrating the insanity of war and the lengths that it will push human beings to – and it is not pretty. For the two soldiers in the trench the struggle develops from petty squabbling over a cigarette to who is to blame for starting the war. In the end the message is clear – it doesn’t matter who started the war, we are all in the same mess now and moral righteousness lies with the side who is pointing the weapon at the other. There’s a worrying lesson that never seems to get learnt…

It is this message that takes the story out of a trench in Bosnia and gives it a universal dimension. It is a message that seems to be ever more relevant now and, no doubt, will continue to have relevance in the future. Despite the black humour, the film remains realistic and doesn’t rely on pointed satire or heavy-handed political messages. It doesn’t trivialise the situation and despite its humour, the deep enmity between both sides is clearly apparent. No Man’s Land maintains a tense and dangerous edge and lets the absurdity of the situation speak for itself, letting slow pans of the beautiful countryside highlight the incongruity and obscenity of the destruction that the war is causing. It is a situation for which there is no getting out of and the film doesn’t patronise its audience by wrapping the film up with an easy solution or message.

The picture is very good. 2.35:1 anamorphic and not a mark on the print. Even potentially difficult scenes remain free from artefacts – the opening scene is dark and foggy, but remains brilliantly clear and trouble-free. Sharp without any edge-enhancement, colours are bright and realistic and as the film is shot mainly in bright sunlight, the clarity can be seen in the strong contrasts. A touch on the soft-side maybe, but detail is fine at most points in the film.
Subtitles are large and clear. They are mainly in the black bar below the picture, but occasionally stray onto the image when there are two lines of dialogue, but don’t distract. They are mandatory, but not fixed – ie. you must choose between English subtitles and hard of hearing subtitles – one or the other.

The sound is straightforward Dolby Digital 2.0, which may seem disappointing considering the excellent 5.1 soundtrack on the French Release, but in reality the stereo soundtrack is more than sufficient here. Strong and clear, the soundtrack carries the film along powerfully.

It is in the extras department however that the DVD seriously disappoints. There is not so much as a trailer or cast and crew information. If you have some knowledge of French, the French Release would definitely be a better option with two commentaries, an interview with the director and a short film among the extra features.

A fantastic film, it hits every target and makes its point clearly, concisely and with biting humour, as well as delivering a tense, exciting and well-paced film. As it is, this is a good bare-bones release from Momentum, delivering a basic, strong image and sound without any frills whatsoever. The film is good enough to stand on its own, but as an Oscar and a Golden Globe winner for Best Foreign Language Film, as well as a Best Screenplay award at Cannes, you would have thought that a little more effort could have been made here.

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