Pretty Village, Pretty Flame
|Pretty Village, Pretty Flame|
|Directed by||Srđan Dragojević|
|Produced by||Dragan Bjelogrlić
|Written by||Vanja Bulić
|Music by||Aleksandar Habić
|Edited by||Petar Marković|
Pretty Village, Pretty Flame (Serbian: Лепа села лепо горе (Lepa sela lepo gore), literally "Pretty villages burn pretty") is a 1996 Serbian film directed by Srđan Dragojević with a screenplay based on an article written by Vanja Bulić.
Set during the Bosnian War, the film tells the story of Milan, part of a small group of Serb soldiers trapped in a tunnel by a Bosniak force. Through flashbacks, the lives of the trapped soldiers in pre-war Yugoslavia are shown, particularly Milan and his Bosniak best friend Halil becoming enemies after having to pick opposing sides in the conflict.
It is considered a modern classic of Serbian cinema. Almost 800,000 people went to see the film in cinemas across Serbia, which equated to approximately 8% of the country's total population. The film was selected as the Serbian entry for the Best Foreign Language Film at the 69th Academy Awards, but was not accepted as a nominee.
The plot was inspired by real-life events that took place in the opening stages of the Bosnian War, with the film's screenplay being based on an article written by Vanja Bulić for Duga magazine about the actual event. Following the success of the movie, Bulić wrote a novel named Tunel that's essentially an expanded version of his magazine article.
Pretty Village, Pretty Flame features a non-linear plot line, and the scenes change between time periods from 1971 to 1999 which mostly cut back and forth in no particular order. The main time periods include the "present" with a hospitalized Milan, with flashbacks to both his childhood and his early adulthood in the 1980s until the war begins, and subsequent service as a soldier where he is trapped in the tunnel.
The film opens with a faux newsreel, showing the opening of the Tunnel of Brotherhood and Unity by visiting President Josip Broz Tito and local dignitary Džemal Bijedić on 27 June 1971. During the ribbon-cutting ceremony, President Tito accidentally cuts his thumb with the scissors.
At the beginning of the Bosnian War in 1992, Milan (Dragan Bjelogrlić), a Bosnian Serb, and his best friend Halil (Nikola Pejaković), a Bosniak Muslim, live a quiet life in a small village in eastern Bosnia, playing basketball at a kafana owned by Slobo (Petar Božović). While Milan and Halil are taking a break, Nazim, a Bosniak neighbour of Slobo, asks him if he can look after his house while he is visiting his sister in Tuzla. Halil makes comments to Nazim about moving away rather than visiting his relatives as many of their belongings can be seen in their car and trailer, which Nazim denies. A wounded Milan is then shown in bed at a military Hospital in Belgrade, where he taunts a wounded young Bosniak soldier in the neighbouring room, whom he threatens to kill if his friend in the next bed dies.
In 1994 during the conflict, Milan joins the Army of Republika Srpska and is attached to a squad that includes:
- Velja (Nikola Kojo): a career criminal and thief from Belgrade, who did most of his work in West Germany. During a visit home the authorities came to conscript his younger brother, a promising student. Velja pretended to be his brother, knowing full well he would have been taken to the front lines for draft-dodging, becoming a soldier in his place.
- Petar "Professor" (Dragan Maksimović): a Bosnian Serb school teacher from Banja Luka, he seems to have nostalgic feelings towards SFR Yugoslavia. While some of the others loot houses, he is more interested in literature and intermittently reads from a burnt diary he found in one of the villages the squad passed through.
- Brzi "Speedy" (Zoran Cvijanović): a heroin addict from Belgrade, the son of a Yugoslav People's Army (JNA) officer and the only one in the group who speaks English. While high on drugs one night, he walked to a highway overpass in Belgrade where the people have gathered to cheer on the troops going to war, jumping off only to land in a JNA truck headed towards the Croatian border. It is left ambiguous whether the jump was a suicide attempt. Brzi was given an ambulance truck to drive and he now sees his involvement in the war as an attempt to get himself off drugs.
- Laza (Dragan Petrović): a simple-minded and impressionable family man with old-fashioned values. Laza was so outraged by a Serbian TV news report about atrocities against Serbs that he walked to the nearest highway and hitchhiked to Belgrade to volunteer for combat. On the way there he vents his anger to the truck driver that picked him up, telling him among other things "never again shall a German or Turk set foot here", completely unaware that the person behind the wheel is a Turkish trucker driving through Serbia.
- Viljuška "Fork" (Milorad Mandić): a cheerful and jovial Chetnik sympathizer from central Serbia whose only motive for fighting was looking out for his brother-in-law Laza. He is nicknamed Fork because he carries a fork around his neck symbolizing Serbian sophistication in the 14th century, and contrasts Serbian kings to English and German kings at the time, who he says ate using their hands..
- Gvozden (Bata Živojinović): the squad's captain and a professionally trained Yugoslav People's Army officer. Although fighting for the Serbian side, in his heart he still believes in Yugoslavia and its ideals. In 1980, after the death of Yugoslav president Josip Broz Tito, Gvozden made the national news when he walked 350 kilometres across the country to attend Tito's funeral.
- Marko (Marko Kovijanić): a young man who is often foolish and desperately seeking the approval of his colleagues. He is shown to be very fond of foreign culture; he drew a graffiti of a Serb three-finger salute with the caption saying "Srbija do Tokija" ("Serbia to Tokyo") in an ethnically cleansed Bosniak house, later holding a Confederate flag when leaving the Bosniak village sitting on top of an M53/59 Praga, and he always wear a headband with the Chinese character for "dragon" (龍) on it.
Milan, disturbed with the way the war is being conducted, is frustrated by the fact that profiteers are looting Halil's property. Milan shoots three of the profiteers out of anger after they set fire to the auto-repair shop he and Halil had built together, wounding them, and is then shocked to find Slobo is looting the property too. Later Slobo tells him that his mother has been killed by Bosniaks from Halil's squad, and Milan returns to home to find it vandalized and covered in his mother's blood. After the squad set a village on fire, they watch it burn and Velja says: "Pretty villages are pretty when they burn. Ugly villages stay ugly, even when they burn." (in Serbian, Lepa sela lepo gore, a ružna sela ostaju ružna, čak i kad gore.) At night Milan and his squad are encircled by Bosniak fighters, telling his surviving squad mates to run to a nearby tunnel he was scared of entering as a child, believed to be home to an ogre. Milan, Velja, Professor, Fork, Laza, and Gvozden enter the tunnel and fight off the Bosniak fighters, however the group become trapped as they will be shot if they leave. Attempting to contact their allies, the Bosniaks taunt them using Marko's radio, who they are torturing. Shortly afterwards, Speedy crashes his truck into the tunnel, with Liza Linel (Lisa Moncure) an American reporter for CBC News who had sneaked into the back of the truck, and the two also become trapped.
The squad stays inside the tunnel for a week but begin to snap: Laza is mortally wounded when trying to throw a grenade. Velja tries to leave the tunnel with the intention of dying, but is shot and the others bring him back. The Bosniaks then announce they are sending a woman to the squad "for their enjoyment" who is revealed to be Milan and Hilal's former school teacher who has been sexually abused. As she walks towards them slowly, they decide to shoot her before she gets too close, fearing explosives have been attached to her. None of them can do it until Fork shoots her, then having had enough of the war attempts to leave the tunnel but is killed, and Velja commits suicide. Milan recognizes the voice on the radio as Hilal, and the two communicate shortly before the Bosniaks attack the tunnel. Gvozden drives the truck out of the tunnel at full speed before exploding from fires lit at the entrance, killing Gvozden and the troops attacking the tunnel, allowing the others to leave. On the way out Speedy is wounded by a stray bullet and Liza is killed by shrapnel from a grenade. Milan and Halil meet outside, where Halil asks who burned down his garage while Milan asks who killed his mother - both men deny being involved before Halil is then killed by a Serb artillery strike.
Milan, Professor, and Speedy escape and all three are sent to the Belgrade military hospital, where Speedy is the friend in the bed next to Milan. Speedy eventually dies, and the following night Milan tries to kill the Bosniak boy as promised, despite being unable to walk. Milan crawls into the next room, followed by an equally disabled Professor trying to stop him. As Milan goes to stab the boy with a fork, he cannot bring himself to do it, and is discovered by the nurses. An imaginary scene then shows the tunnel full of dead bodies, including Milan and Halil, being witnessed by them as children.
The film closes on 21 July 1999 with a newsreel, showing the re-opening of the reconstructed tunnel under the new name, Tunnel of Peace.
The funds for the movie were raised through a legal entity Cobra Film Department that was registered as a limited liability company by Nikola Kojo, Dragan Bjelogrlić, Goran Bjelogrlić, and Milko Josifov. Most of the money came from the Serbian government's (under prime minister Mirko Marjanović) Ministry of Culture (headed by cabinet minister Nada Perišić-Popović) as well as from the Serbian state television RTS. Reportedly, the budget raised was US$2 million.
The shooting of the film with working title Tunel began on 19 April 1995. Majority of the scenes were shot on location in and around Višegrad, Republika Srpska (Serb inhabited entity of Bosnia and Herzegovina, at the time still governed by Radovan Karadžić), often in places that were former battlefields. In July 1995, after 85 shooting days, the production was put on hold due to lack of funds, some 7 planned shooting days short of completion. Following a new round of fund-raising, the production resumed in mid-November 1995 and finished by early 1996.
According to Dragojević, the movie's title is paraphrased from a passage describing burning villages in the distance in Louis-Ferdinand Céline's 1932 novel Voyage au bout de la nuit, literary work that had a strong effect on Dragojević when he read it in his early youth.
Release and reaction
The film won accolades for direction, acting, and brutally realistic portrayal of the war in former Yugoslavia. It was also the first Serbian film to show the Serbian side of the conflict involved in atrocities and ethnic cleansing – the title of the film is an ironic comment on the protagonists' activities in a Bosnian village.
In addition to FR Yugoslavia (Serbia and Montenegro), the only other former Yugoslav countries where the movie had an official theatrical distribution were Slovenia and Macedonia. Released in Slovenia as Lepe vasi lepo gorijo, it became a cinema hit in the country with 72,000 admission tickets sold. In Macedonia it also posted a good box office result with more than 50,000 admission tickets sold.
Writing in Sight & Sound in November 1996, British author Misha Glenny delivered a stinging attack on critics who view Pretty Village, Pretty Flame or Emir Kusturica's Underground through a simplistic, reductionist pro- or anti-Serb critical lens.
Swedish public service TV broadcast it under the name Vackra byar ("beautiful villages").
Even before wider distribution in North America, the film received notices in major American newspapers such as the Los Angeles Times and the Toledo Blade that covered it from the Bosnian War angle.
The reaction to the film and its various aspects continues long after its theatrical and festival run ended. It is frequently used by various public figures as springboard for political, ethnic, and historical discussions and open issues that continue to plague the Balkans region.
In early 2000s, while promoting his movie No Man's Land, Bosniak director and former soldier in the Army of the Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina during the war Danis Tanović called Pretty Village, Pretty Flame "well made, but ethically problematic due to its shameful portrayal of the war in Bosnia".
Then during summer 2009, more than thirteen years after the film's release, outspoken Bosniak actor, nationalist politician, and current Sarajevo Canton Minister of Culture Emir Hadžihafizbegović gave an interview at the 2009 Pula Film Festival in which he went after Dragojević and his crew by calling them "morbid and blasphemous" over the fact that some of the scenes in Pretty Village, Pretty Flame were shot on location in Višegrad, Republika Srpska while the war was still going on in some parts of Bosnia. Emir Hadžihafizbegović further denounced Dragojević and the film's production crew by drawing a connection between them and local Višegrad paramilitary warlord Milan Lukić (not a member of the regular Army of Republika Srpska) who was later indicted and convicted by the Hague tribunal to life in prison for war crimes. The basis Hadžihafizbegović provided for such a strong accusation was the fact that in the film's closing credits, the filmmakers listed the Army of Republika Srpska among the institutions that helped the production: "As far as I'm concerned, by thanking the Republika Srpska Army in closing credits they're thanking Milan Lukić and his brethren".
The film's critical reception in North America was very positive. It got plenty of press coverage following its debut showings at festivals in Montreal and Toronto.
Variety's Emanuel Levy penned a glowing review calling the film "wilder in its black humor than MASH, bolder in its vision of politics and the military than any movie Stanley Kubrick has made, and one of the most audacious antiwar statements ever committed to the bigscreen".
Ken Fox of TV Guide praised Dragojević for "ultimately refusing to deal in heroes and villains and never shying away from self-condemnation" while concluding that Pretty Village, Pretty Flame is "a bloody, uncompromising and surprisingly enthralling piece of antiwar filmmaking that pulls no punches and demands to be seen".
In his very favourable 1997 review, American online film critic James Berardinelli labelled the film "a powerful condemnation of war that shares several qualities with the German films Das Boot and Stalingrad".
New York Times' Lawrence Van Gelder gave kudos to Dragojević for "unleashing a powerful assault on the insanity of the war that pitted Serb against Muslim in Bosnia" and praised the film as "a clear, well-meaning, universal appeal to reason".
British magazine Total Film praised the film, calling it "one of the most electrifying anti-war movies ever made" and further continuing: "What this small, worthy film excels at is showing how even long friendships became perverted in the Bosnian conflict.... Small it may be, but it's powerfully and perfectly formed".
Shlomo Schwartzberg of Boxoffice magazine called some of the film's scenes "worthy of Vonnegut at his most hallucinatory", concluding overall that "the film is somewhat cliched and a little more pro-Serb than necessary, but packs a genuine punch".
"Lepa sela lepo gore" garnered six wins and one nomination:
- Won European Jury Award at the Festival d'Angers (1997)
- Won Telcipro Award at the Festival d'Angers (1997)
- Won Distinguished Award of Merit at the Lauderdale International Film Festival (1996)
- Won Bronze Horse at the Stockholm International Film Festival (1996)
- Won International Jury Award at the São Paulo International Film Festival (1996)
- Won Audience Award at the Thessaloniki Film Festival (1996)
- Nominated for Golden Alexander at the Thessaloniki Film Festival (1996)
- List of submissions to the 69th Academy Awards for Best Foreign Language Film
- List of Serbian submissions for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film
- Bjela za MONDO: Bog te...uspeli smo!;mondo.rs, 11 February 2011
- Margaret Herrick Library, Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences
- "39 Countries Hoping for Oscar Nominations". Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. 13 November 1996. Archived from the original on 9 February 1999. Retrieved 5 October 2015.
- Dragan Bjelogrlić;Pressing, 23 October 1996
- Putting a 'Flame' to Serbia's SoulThe Los Angeles Times, 29 October 1996
- Srđan Dragojević: "Parada" je film za gay neistomišljenike;PTP.hr, December 2011
- Aplauzi za "Paradu" i u Skoplju;B92, 19 December 2011
- Cobra Film
- Lepa sela... su antisrpski film;BH Dani, 8 September 2000
- Misha Glenny, "If You Are Not For Us", Sight & Sound, November 1996, p.12
- Serb director's movie a blood-stained elegy to death of nation;The Toledo Blade, 5 January 1997
- Nudili scenarij svima, do Tanovića, Jutarnji list, November 30, 2006
- Nastavak spora oko filma "Lepa sela lepo gore", Borba, August 27, 2009
- Pretty Village, Pretty Flame;Variety, 8 September 1996
- Pretty Village, Pretty Flame;TV Guide, 1996
- Pretty village, Pretty Flame:1997
- Seeing a Doomed Future After War and Hatred;The New York Times, 10 October 1997
- Pretty Village, Pretty Flame;Total Film, 16 January 1998
- Pretty Village, Pretty Flame;Boxoffice, 16 January 1998
- Pretty Village, Pretty Flame;Gerald Peary, April 1998