Bosnian director Danis Tanovic returns to his homeland for the first time since making the shattering No Man’s Land, about enemy soldiers during the Bosnian war who must learn to trust each other to survive. After making that Oscar-winning foreign-language film in 2001, Tanovic made 2005’s Hell, a strongly acted dissection of broken family ties (based on a script by Krzysztof Kieslowski) in France, and then Triage—an intermittently scalding look at the horrors of post-war trauma in Ireland and Spain.
Cirkus Columbia brings Tanovic back to familiar turf, set in post-Communist Yugoslavia before the devastating war that tore apart the entire Balkan region and countless families. Like No Man’s Land, it’s an obvious allegory for the minute political differences among culturally and historically linked people that led to the 1990s murderous conflict. Equally absurdist though grounded in a more plausible everyday reality, Cirkus Columbia deals unflinchingly with how petty personal vendettas metastasized into lethal nationalist jingoism.
When Divko Buntic (Miki Manojlovic) returns to his backwater Bosnian hometown after a self-imposed two-decade exile in Germany, he arrives in a new Mercedes with a much younger girlfriend, Azra (Jelena Stupljanin), and beloved cat, Bonny, in tow. Upon his homecoming, he looks up an old friend who’s now mayor, enlisting his help in throwing his estranged wife, Lucija (Mira Furlan), and 20-year-old son, Martin (Boris Ler), out of his apartment, which Divko and Azra immediately move into.
Right at the beginning, Tanovic shrewdly introduces the dynamics of power that initially work in Divko’s favor, and which will soon pit family members against one another. At first, Divko has it easy. He strolls the town’s streets with Azra, enjoys local cuisine at the nearby watering hole (Azra refuses to eat a pig’s head placed on their table, while Divko nonchalantly pulls out an eye and eats it lustily), and enjoys the privileges he feels he has earned. After all, his friend is running things.
Soon, however, Divko’s return becomes complicated, starting with Bonny’s disappearance. The cat escaped during the night when Martin, who snuck upstairs to contact far-away America via his CB radio, left a skylight to the roof open. Unable to find his cat, Divko not only forces Martin and Azra to look for it (needless to say, they bond intimately) but he also gets the townspeople—initially wary of his reappearance as a big shot from capitalist Western Europe—to join the hunt by offering a substantial reward for its return.
Working from a script he and Ivica Dikic wrote, Tanovic has created a pungent metaphor for how quickly tiny frictions blew up into outright killing and the worst atrocities in Europe since Hitler. Even if the theme is hammered home, Tanovic has obviously decided, as he did in No Man’s Land, that subtlety has no place here, bluntness serving the story better than suggestion or finesse. The actors magisterially tread a fine line between cartoonish and understatement.
The bubbling conflict is on the periphery of the town. The local military outpost is run by a former Communist general, who has been a surrogate father to Martin and husband to Lucija in Divko’s absence. The mayor’s son, a close friend of Martin’s, is caught up in the festering nationalism and joins a paramilitary group, whose members may have been the culprits in a beating delivered to the former mayor, a strict Communist, who warns Martin about what’s to come if he stays. The brewing war is also shown on television news. When the Serbs are shown shelling the Croatian city of Dubrovnik, Divko exasperatingly exclaims, “Will they shell the old bridge in Mostar next?” (They almost surely will, along with much else in the ensuing years.)
The title refers to a local “circus”—more like a cheap amusement park with beat-up children’s rides—that Divko and Azra come upon during one of their walks around town. Divko happily jumps on one of the rides, which lets him return to his peaceful childhood fleetingly. (Walther Vanden Ende’s tangy cinematography evokes those pleasant bygone days with soft colors and lighting that are at odds with the erupting militarism that creeps closer and closer.) When, after binding his family’s wounds, Divko returns to the circus site at the end, that temporary youthful idyll has been replaced by the sight and sound of shells exploding nearby—the war has caught up to him and to a broken Yugoslavia.