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by Jay Seaver

"Though set during a war, Witnesses is a better crime drama than war movie."
4 stars

Witnesses isn't really a war movie. It's got some thoughts on combat, soldiers, the homefront, and how war can sap the humanity from the entire country, and they're good ones, but nothing revelatory. As the name suggests, though, the war mostly acts as a backdrop for a crime story. And once you strip away the need for greater meaning, the end result is fairly solid.

There aren't many tears shed over a murder that takes place in a Croation village during the 1991-1995 war for independence. The victim is not Croation, and lives in a large house paid for via war profiteering. An army unit comprised mostly of local soldiers is in town, so there's no shortage of people who could have committed the crime. It also means that nobody is particularly willing to help; the investigating detective, Babir (Drazen Kuhn), is berated when he asks questions of neighbors - what does it matter who killed one Serbian? And, truth be told, he's distracted; his wife lies in a coma, shrapnel lodged in her brain. The only person who seems to actually be interested in solving the case is a pretty reporter (Alma Prica), who notices that a man alone likely would not have had chocolate-coated cereal as his last meal.

Across the street, a widow (Mirjana Karanovic) grieves for her slain husband. One son is staying with her along with two of his army mates; the older son's arrival is somewhat unexpected. It soon becomes very clear that younger son Jusko (Kresimir Mikic) and his friends were involved in the crime; it's equally apparent that Jusko is a complete screw-up. Fortunately for him, his mother is shrewd and ruthless, and is more than willing to help cover it up. Her cousin is the mayor, and also a surgeon who can move Babir's wife up on the schedule. If not for that nosey reporter...

If I haven't said too much, I've probably come fairly close. As murder stories go, Witnesses isn't terribly complicated; to call it a whodunit would greatly overstate the case. Screenwriter/director Vinko Bresan instead chooses to examine the situation from multiple viewpoints. Several scenes are repeated over the course of the movie, although the focus will be on a different part of the room, or the camera will hang around a given location rather than leaving when another character does. When you consider that the movie is only eighty-some minutes long, even with scenes repeated, you realize what a relatively simple story it must be.

And yet, the primary impression isn't one of simplicity. The structure allows us to get to know each character fairly well, and there are flashbacks to the brothers, their father, and their comrades on patrol. A relatively simple murder allows the audience to gain insight to the fortress mentality of a nation at war, and a community small enough that it's not at all hard to believe that taking care of one's own would so easily supersede the law and what's right. And while it's usually not a compliment to say that a movie feels longer than it is, it is in this case. The movie feels full, having covered all the angles, but without the hurried, must-do-a-lot-quickly pacing.

The cast is pretty much unknown in America, but are able enough. Of particular note is Mirjana Karanovic as the harsh, grieving mother: She has the sort of will that fills a room despite having lost a great deal; despite the dowdy black mourner's garb the character wears, it's clear that she must have been a striking beauty when she was younger. The sad-faced Kuhn also stands out. Kresimir Mikic also gives a noteworthy performance that demonstrates just how close naivete and psychopathy can be.

Somewhat less impressive are Leon Lucev as the older, responsible brother and Alma Prica as his reporter girlfriend; they're earnest, but a little too much so; it's hard to believe that they're able to remain relatively uncompromised in this enviornment (although the reporter's nice apartment may indicate that she has money to insulate her from the worst nastiness). They also suffer from being stuck in the movie's overly-sentimental, clichéd final scene. It's too bad that the last scene in a movie is the one which tends to linger; it's the movie's tritest moment, and nearly wipes out the memory of how well-played a some other bits are.

Thus far, I don't think Witnesses has played much outside the festival circuit, and it's a shame. While it won't ever become THE movie about the Balkan conflict, it's a good crime drama which is able to use that war as a unique backdrop.

link directly to this review at http://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=9639&reviewer=371
originally posted: 02/24/05 16:52:57
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2004 Vancouver Film Festival. For more in the 2004 Vancouver Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

2/25/05 Denise great 4 stars
11/15/04 johnny great movie 5 stars
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  DVD: 01-Jan-2005



Directed by
  Vinko Bresan

Written by
  Vinko Bresan
  Zivko Zalar

  Leon Lucev
  Alma Prica
  Mirjana Karanovic
  Drazen Kuhn
  Kresimir Mikic
  Marinko Prga

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