Romeo and Juliet Among the Ruins

You won't see a more damning testimony to the mindlessness of war than the final scene of Vukovar. It's a sweeping panorama of burned-out rubble where once stood the town of Vukovar, a breathtakingly picturesque jewel of a city in the former Yugoslavia. It took three months for director Boro Draskovic and his crew to secure permission from Croatian, Serbian, and United Nations officials just to film one ten-minute, helicopter-borne camera shot of the destruction. When contrasted with the dreamy, idyllic re-creation of pre-war Vukovar that opens the film, the closing spectacle of row upon row of roofless, bombed-out, burned-down buildings and heaps of scattered debris turns the stomach and boggles the mind. It's as powerful and haunting a motion picture image as I've ever witnessed; the shot virtually screams the question, "How can this happen?"

Which, of course, is precisely the reaction Draskovic -- a filmmaker of half-Serb, half-Croatian heritage -- hopes to elicit. His unremittingly depressing film follows the travails of a pair of star-crossed newlyweds swallowed up by a cruel and particularly senseless civil war. The story's occasional shopworn Romeo and Juliet parallels wear a bit thin at times, but Draskovic's stunning visual imagery -- two soldiers on a teeter-totter firing bursts from their automatic weapons into the air to power them up and down; a sniper spying skinny-dipping female enemy soldiers through his rifle sight; a gang rape as harrowing and repulsive as the sexual assault in A Clockwork Orange; twisted corpses bobbing serenely in the blue Danube -- compensates for the overly familiar elements of the central lovers-torn-apart-by-war narrative.

It's 1991. Optimism, hope, and a giddy sense of freedom sweep through Eastern Europe as the Berlin Wall crumbles and takes most of communism with it. Childhood sweethearts Toma (charismatic newcomer Boris Isakovic) and Anna (Mirjana Jokovic from Emir Kusturica's Underground) marry with the blessings of both their families. The fact that he is Serbian and she is Croatian troubles no one close to the couple. But many outsiders are not so tolerant; on the way from the wedding to the reception, Toma's and Anna's nuptial procession crosses paths with a pair of nationalist marches -- one pro-Serb, the other pro-Croat. Talk about bad omens.

Toma gets called away to serve in the Yugoslav army. (An expert marksman, he can't bring himself to kill his Croatian countrymen, only to wound and incapacitate them.) Days after his departure, Anna learns that -- surprise, surprise -- she became pregnant from their last bout of lovemaking. When Croat partisans step up threats against Toma's folks, Anna's in-laws pack up their possessions and scram, leaving Anna behind in the care of her own parents who naively downplay the possibility of real violence. "It's chaos now," reasons Anna's dad in attempting to persuade Tomas's father not to flee. "But it will settle soon. The world won't allow [things to get worse]."

Of course, he couldn't be more wrong. The former Yugoslavia explodes into paroxysms of sickening ethnic violence, sucking Anna and Toma into its ghastly vortex.

Draskovic takes pains to balance the blame for the strife in his homeland; his objective is not to point fingers at one side or the other, but to rail against the insanity of war by putting human faces on the tragedy. Despite his efforts at neutrality, however, Vukovar has come under attack from the Croatian community here in the U.S. They have a point; the animalistic gang rapists appear to be Croats, although Draskovic maintains that they represent "a negative force without nationalist identification." And the film makes no mention of the concentration camps, mass executions, and other atrocities attributed to the Serbs early on in the conflict in the name of "ethnic cleansing." But the most sympathetic role in the film is that of young Croatian bride Anna; the hardships visited upon her outweigh the suffering of any other character. Only a viewer blinded by partisan beliefs would disagree that Draskovic's overriding intent is to realistically depict the repugnant brutality of war.

What a gutsy move by UM's Bill Cosford Cinema to open its fall schedule -- the theater has been closed for the summer -- with such a provocative, controversial, and heart-wrenching drama. Vukovar is about as far removed from a slick, commercial Hollywood product such as Independence Day or Courage Under Fire as Sarajevo is from Orlando. Draskovic's film offers neither wisecracking heroes nor battlefield derring-do to make it more palatable for U.S. audiences. Despair is a tough sell at the box office; Vukovar evokes that emotion as intensely as any war movie ever made. Draskovic's simple, obvious premise may be as old as the feud between the Montagues and Capulets, but he skillfully manipulates it to simultaneously illustrate and condemn a bitter fracas that rages to this day. Unlike moving antiwar films past, from All Quiet on the Western Front to The Killing Fields to Schindler's List, the world has yet to awaken from the nightmare that is Vukovar.

--Todd Anthony

Written by Maja and Boro Draskovic; directed by Boro Draskovic; with Mirjana Jokovic and Boris Isakovic.


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