10th Belfast Film Festival review
There was something appropriate about Danis Tanovic’s Triage being selected as the opening film of the 10th Belfast Film Festival, and not just because of its Irish connections, the film featuring Colin Farrell as a war-zone photojournalist trying to recover and resettle back home in Dublin. The theme of the film itself deals with the symptoms of post-war Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and the long-term damage that is suffered by those caught up in a war situation where abnormal and inhuman behaviour becomes just another facet of everyday life. Unable to face up to what has happened in the past once those old ways have been left behind, is certainly something that would be recognisable to a Northern Irish audience, the condition affecting not only large sections of the community, but more relevantly preventing local politicians from being able to meaningfully engage with each other and move forward.
Tanovic presents this situation realistically and quite graphically in the opening section of the film set in Kurdistan in 1988 (the location in Alicante unfortunately looking indeed like a Spanish landscape rather than the mountainous region familiar from Bahman Ghobadi films), where Mark Walsh (Farrell) and his colleague David (Jamie Sives) are covering the conflict between the Kurdish soldiers and Iraqi soldiers at a point where the war is reaching a violent and bloody climax, the Kurdish rebels about to launch an offensive that would be followed by Saddam Hussein’s infamous retaliation of gassing of Kurdish towns. It’s all getting a bit too much for David who, unlike Mark, is unable to cut himself off from the death and mutilation he sees around him and the absurdity of the war-time situation, particularly when the remoteness of the geographic location means that medical assistance is limited and the local doctor (Branko Djuric) has to make tough choices about who can be treated.
It’s an abomination of everything that is human, and not just in how the role of the doctor is perverted, but in how, as a photo journalist, Mark is able to stand back impassively from it all, clicking away on his camera even as the worse of atrocities are occurring around him, detached to the point that he clearly feels he is invulnerable. There is however is more damage being caused than he realises, and when a serious injury forces him to return home to Dublin, he leaves David behind to an unknown fate, his friend having left to make his own way back to civilisation after the carnage of an assault on an Iraqi convoy. Back home however, the injuries sustained in Kurdistan start to take their toll on Mark, and with a long career of war photojournalism behind him, the damage seems to be more psychological than physical.
If the film does seems a little clinical in its psychoanalysis of Mark’s condition – and as Lars von Trier showed in his case study of PTSD in Antichrist, psychoanalysis is creative death to the filmmaker to the extent that it is practically anti-cinema – Tanovic at least sets out the case well. Back on the familiar ground of his Bosnian war-set breakthrough 2001 Oscar-winner No Man’s Land after the misstep of the 2005 Kieslowski-penned L’Enfer (also coincidentally related to a coming to terms with the past), the film may indeed go through the familiar war-as-an-absurdity situations, but it avoids the worst sentimental excesses of the similarly-themed war photojournalist drama Harrison’s Flowers for a more realistic depiction of how ordinary people (which includes soldiers and civilians) cope under duress that can be seen in the likes of Alexei Balabanov’s Chechnyan-war drama War.
Like No Man’s Land, Triage is not without a touch of irony and black-humour, the script authentic and nuanced, if a little prone to making the expected anti-war pronouncements and proclamations, the film neatly tying in the Spanish Civil War and the resultant burying of the past that still profoundly affects modern-day politics and family relationships in Spain. Just when it appears that the casting of Paz Vega as Mark’s wife Elena as Spanish appears to be one of those strange casting decisions that occur in a cross-European funded production and often result (as they do here) in some misjudged English-language performances, the appearance of Christopher Lee as her estranged grandfather Joaquín Morales, a Spanish psychoanalyst specialising in helping those who participated in atrocities during the Civil War, brings another dimension to the family tensions and the impact of both keeping the past unspoken and the dangers of unravelling it.
The verbal sparring between Lee and Farrell is marvellous, Farrell showing a fine intensity in a dramatic role, Lee’s calm assurance the perfect foil for his tormented interiorising. Together they carry much of the latter part of the film, holding it through the talky second-half of material that would seem better suited to a novel or play than a film, although Tanovic works hard to maintain the kind of ticking-bomb tension that was evident in his debut, trying to create some additional dynamic with dramatised flashback sequences to other war-zone experiences that have subconsciously had an impact on Mark. Despite these efforts and an occasional attempt at lyricism, although ultimately satisfying, there is a sense that it has all become a little too academic and Triage is certainly much too neat in its resolution. If only it were that easy to get over the past, I’m sure much of the Belfast audience, like myself, were thinking.