The Southeast European Film Festival concludes tonight at UCLA. A highlight has been the US premiere of Goran Devic’s and Zvonimir Juric’s The Blacks, a trancelike, psychological thriller about a group of Croatian special forces during the Bosnian war. It’s being touted as the first Croat feature to address Croatian war crimes, but it’s not a message picture; it merely references Branimir Glavas‘ famed Garage Case as a backdrop for its existential drama.
Five armed men slink through a forest as they follow the tracks of a previous party; a shocking event twenty minutes into the picture triggers a flashback to the day before, setting the stage for the enigmatic prelude, gradually answering questions along the way. So masterfully does the film relay information that any plot summary would rob a viewer of its narrative pleasures. Long camera takes focus intently on the brittle, preoccupied characters, dressed in commando black and often enshrouded in darkness; the men speak to one another in minimal sentences. A vivid sense of menace permeates the picture, with a rumbling unease that envelops the characters at every turn. But this isn’t a typical action picture–the danger isn’t an enemy around the corner, it’s the void originating from within the characters’ own psyches.
Like William Wellman’s Track of the Cat (1954), the film is effectively a black-and-white movie shot in color. Its desaturated hues, dark uniforms, and light walls render its unveiling moral crisis in stark visual relief. The aging commander is an intractable man driven by conviction, who would rather take action than consider its consequences. The men in his charge make note of his inconsistencies and respond in subdued, individual ways; most seem too deflated from the experience of war to mount any form of protest. The Bosnian war ushered in widespread drug abuse, and alcohol and heroin infuse their paramilitary activities.
Yet there are sparks of human recognition, awareness that resembles awakening, which occasionally flitter across the faces of the militia. But the flashback structure of the film reinforces the trajectory of fate, and the encroaching nightfall and darkening visuals suggests the closing of an era of carnage, its secrets and nightmares no longer confined to obscurity.