A PERFECT DAY
Somewhere in the Balkans in 1995, a group of aid workers tries to remove a cadaver from a well in an armed conflict zone. The body was thrown into the well to contaminate the water and cut the water supply to the local population. But circumstances soon turn a simple task into an impossible mission. The workers cross the frenzied war landscape like guinea pigs in a maze, and there might be no way out. A war inside another war, in which the only enemy could be irrationality. The crisis they're trying to solve is humanitarian, but they're only human.
Review by Louise Keller:
Who says you need bullets and violence to depict the horrors of war? Guided by an armoury of pragmatism, common sense and dark humour, Fernando Leon de Aranoa deals a hand from a different pack of cards; one that successfully manages tone shifts involving dire situations countered by that of humour. It's not an easy thing to achieve, as films like Whiskey Tango Foxtrot and Rock the Kasbah learned to their detriment. Here, in this adaptation of Paul Farias' novel, strong performances by Benicio Del Toro and Tim Robbins bridge the gap between sobriety and levity.
It is the unusual perspective of one of the film's opening shot of a man's corpse in a well 'somewhere in the Balkans' that grabs our attention. We see the man's body from underneath, as efforts are made to remove it from the well in order to salvage the drinking water. It is 1995 and the interpreter notes the locals are well known for their sense of humour. They are not alone. Aid workers Mambru (Del Toro) and his offsider B (Robbins) use humour as their method of dealing with the reality of their everyday work.
While much of the exposition involves the seemingly impossible task of finding rope to remove the corpse, it is how Mambru, B and their entourage deal with each unique situation that fascinates. Nothing is easy - from cutting through the UN protocol to managing the locals; each member of the party is integral to the action. The landscape is bleak and unforgiving, filled with ghost towns and roadblocks.
For first timer Sophie (Melanie Thierry), the man in the well is the first corpse she has seen: a difficult thing with which to cope. The way Mambru lightens the mood is unexpected. There is a push-pull feel about Mambru's relationship with Katya (Olga Kurylenko), with whom he had an affair a couple of years ago, as the barbs fly. You look different, he comments. Yes, I'm dressed, she retorts. B is a wild card with a taste for adrenalin, never keen to follow the rules. The scene when he assess how to bypass a dead cow on the road - potentially a mine trap - is edgy and funny. Finally, there is Nicolo (Eldar Residovic), the young local boy who wants to get his soccer ball. His poignant story is handled with touching understatement.
There are many surprises as solutions are sought to the problems encountered. We get a sense of life in this war-torn zone, where there is a reason for everything, including the way a grandmother follows the cows across the arid countryside. Listen for Marlene Dietrich singing 'Where have all the flowers gone'. It's highly moving in the context and the unwelcome rain towards the end of the film brings it to an effective circular close. This is a powerful film whose use of irony and humour punctuates its themes of war, death and suffering with unexpected brio.
Review by Andrew L. Urban:
The irony of the title becomes clear fairly quickly as does the black humour that envelops this tragedy, one that is replicated thousands of times in war zones such as the Balkans in the 90s. The searing insights are presented with minimal flourish and with riveting storytelling; this is how it is and you can't look away. Yet the film never abandons hope and our engagement is rewarded with a sense of experiencing the exploration of the most complex aspects of the human condition.
One of three wells in a remote region has been poisoned by unknown hands who have thrown a corpse into it - and there are plenty of potential culprits, not all of them obvious. Unless it is quickly removed, it will contaminate the well so badly that the well will become unusable and water shortage will become even more critical. The deadline is just one of the hurdles to challenge a small team of workers from Aid Across Borders, a (fictional) organisation that seeks to help the troubled people of the region.
The screenplay takes us on a winding journey mirrored in the winding roads around the mountainous countryside 'somewhere in the Balkans', sometimes doubling back on itself as if fate was preventing progress toward a positive resolution. But it's not fate: it's humanity. We see examples of the most inventive but deadly cunning ...
Benicio Del Toro plays Mambru the Puerto Rican leader of the group, a caring and dedicated worker whose field experience has given his compassion a pragmatic coating. It's a wonderfully controlled yet powerful performance. Tim Robbins matches it as the loud American renegade with little to lose (and no-one to miss him). Melanie Thierry is Sophie, the new and conscientious young recruit charged with looking after health and sanitation issues, and she delivers a complex character who matures quickly into her job - and realises how hard it is to be a witness. The body in the well is her first warzone cadaver ...
Olga Kurylenko makes a strong impression in a challenging role as Katya, the incoming supervisor checking to see if the unit is viable or should be disbanded. Her past affair with Mambru is a shadow over them, especially now that Mambru's girlfriend knows all about Katya and their affair.
Young Eldar Residovic breaks our hearts as Nikola, the boy with the football, which becomes a symbol of war's devastating effect on people. Notable, too, are Fedja Stukan as interpreter Damir and the ever-excellent Sergi Lopez in a small role as Goyo, Mambru's boss.
With multiple nominations in both the Spanish Film Writers Awards and Spain's Goya Awards (where it won best adapted screenplay), A Perfect Day ends in an irony to underline its title, and leaves us with a sense of having engaged with a film of lasting value.
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A PERFECT DAY (M)
CAST: Benicio Del Toro, Tim Robbins, Olga Kurylenko, Melanie Thierry, Fedja Stukan, Eldar Residovic, Sergi Lopez
PRODUCER: Fernando Leon de Arona, Jaume Roures
DIRECTOR: Fernando Leon de Arona
SCRIPT: Fernando Leon de Arona, with Diego Farias (novel by Paula Farias)
CINEMATOGRAPHER: Alex Catalan
EDITOR: Nacho Ruiz Capillas
MUSIC: Arnau Bataller
PRODUCTION DESIGN: Cesar Macarron
RUNNING TIME: 106 minutes
AUSTRALIAN DISTRIBUTOR: Madman
AUSTRALIAN RELEASE: June 9, 2016