Foreign films rarely get the proper recognition in the English speaking
world, be that the US or Great Britain. Only recently have foreign
films been allowed to compete in categories other than Best Foreign
film at the Academy Awards and the Golden Globes still relegate them to
the Foreign Film category. If we look at the box-office results we see
an even more drastic condition. The highest grossing foreign film of
all time in the US is Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, which made $127
million, something the small Pitch Perfect film achieved in 2011 which
much less effort. But being shunned from awards and shut out from the
box office doesn't mean foreign films don't have quality, just look at
the great Italian films Cinema Paradiso or Life is Beautiful, or at
Jacques Tati's film repertoire, Almodovar and Amenabar in Spain,
Michael Haneke in Austria, and the great master Miyazaki and Kurozawa
in Japan. This brings us to A Perfect Day the newest film from Spanish
director Fernando Leon de Aranoa. The film is made by Spaniards, told
in English, and takes place in the Balkans, a very curious mix, which
nonetheless produced one of the best films of the year.
A Perfect Day tells the story of a group of aid workers working in the
midst of the Balkan crisis in 1995. We have Mambru (Benicio del Toro)
the group's unofficial leader and head of security, the wisecracking B
(Tim Robbins), the rookie Sophie (Melanie Thierry), and their
translator Damir (Fedja Stukan). The film opens with Mambru trying to
take a dead body out of a town well. It's the body of an obese man,
which later symbolizes of the dreading weight that the group is trying
to relieve without help from the UN or the locals, all trying to help a
country they barely know. The story intensifies when Mambru picks up a
lost local kid named Nikola (Eldar Residovic) who had his soccer ball
stolen by bullies, and finally Mambru's ex shows up (Olga Kurylenko) to
evaluate the situation in the Balkans. Essentially the movie is a
road-trip through the Bosnian countryside, letting you catch a glimpse
of the situation that the locals lived in (and still live in today).
What most surprised me about A Perfect Day was the incredible balance
it has. When touching upon the subject of war, it is very easy to be
extreme. Extreme in the sense that you show a gore- fest and lots of
blood and death, or an extreme where you try to cover up everything and
have only descriptions from characters of passed events. A Perfect Day
achieves its goal of brutalizing war with simple acts, like when a kid
pulls out a gun when fighting over a ball, or when a store-owner can't
sell his rope because he has them reserved for hangings, or when a shy
adolescent watches over an empty warehouse, but is spurred with hope
for protecting its flag. It is these little details littered in the
story that really give you the sense of suffering and dread that can be
seen in times of war.
In terms of the acting, it was also very well balanced. You had Robbins
as the comic relief, and Del Toro as the speaker of truth. Both actors
give an incredible performance, with visible yet admirable
improvisation. Meanwhile the supporting cast also is incredibly solid.
The more known names of Olga Kurylenko and Melanie Thierry do a fine
job, but the surprises here were in the local actors: Fedja Stukan and
Eldar Residovic who both give incredibly raw and layered performances
that have us longing to console them, yet you never once pity them in
the undignified sense.
Then the cinematography is also very simple, but yet contains a few
flourishes and Director of Photography Alex Catalan (Marshland, Unit 7)
gives the movie a cold almost wintery look that makes the message and
harshness of the story fall sharper and hit you harder.
Finally, the script was incredibly witty and quick. The character
development in the two hours of running time is so smooth you barely
notice it, but when comparing the characters at the beginning and at
the end of the movie you see how subtle Leon de Aranoa was (especially
with the character Sophie). The dialogue is absolutely delicious, with
the best being quirky exchanges between B and Mambru.
In the end this film, again, exemplifies that "there is life outside
the US" and that foreign cinema (in particular Spanish cinema) is
growing and cultivating fresh crops of new artists. And in a world of
war and sorrow, art is sometimes the only window of hope.