Home Video Hovel- Cirkus Columbia, by Kyle Anderson
Part of the fun of watching a foreign film is listening to the language. Most of us are used to hearing French, Spanish, Italian, or even Japanese, but I can’t say I’ve ever had the opportunity to hear much Bosnian being spoken until watching Danis Tanovic’s 2010 film, Cirkus Columbia, out on DVD May 1st. A great deal of culture and history is infused in the sound of the language and that’s fitting because the film takes place in a very historic and tumultuous time in the region. Set in 1991, shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Tanovic’s film shows us the affect differing relationships between all the characters are as strained as the political climate and before the end, both with come to a head. It’s an allegory, you guys.
The film follows Divko (Miki Manojlovic, whom I’d only ever seen in Largo Winch: The Heir Apparent), a middle-aged Bosnian exile who’d spent the last 20 years in Germany and his young girlfriend Azra (Jelena Stupljanin) as they make their way back to the small village Divko fled two decades ago. The ostensible reason for his heading home now is to get divorce papers finalized so he an Azra can marry and please her very old fashioned family as well as to get back his home. Divko’s estranged wife, Lucija (Mira Furlan, who played the Frenchwoman Rousseau on LOST), and their naïve 20-year-old son Martin (Boris Ler) have lived in the house the whole time Divko was gone for free and now he wants it back. He gets his old friend, the current mayor of the town, to forcibly remove Lucija from the house, but Martin can live there if he wants. Complicating matters all the more, Divko’s prized lucky cat, Bonny, gets out of the house while Martin has snuck in through a skylight and Divko forces Martin and Azra to find it. Martin, being a libidinous virgin, immediately falls in love with his alluring stepmom-to-be. The reason for Divko’s leaving and returning are eventually revealed and the family is forced to come to terms with their various differences.
While all of this family curfuffle is going on, there is political and ethnic struggle happening. One of Martin and Lucija’s friends in town is the former mayor, who was kicked out of office when communism fell. He is under constant threat of death from various people in the town and at one point gets beaten up severely. Another of their friends is Savo, a Sergeant in the Serbian military, whose base occupies a corner of the town. Savo has acted as a surrogate father to Martin all these years and this Divko doesn’t like him at all. Martin’s clingly, kind of gay friend Pivac becomes more and more involved in the conflict between the Serbs and the Bosniaks and Croats and eventually joins the army of the latter. Martin is made to take sides in both conflics; his mother, father, and love for Azra fighting one battle, and his friendly loyalties to the communists, Serbs, and Croats the other. There’s definitely a lot going on in this film, but it never feels like too much. Tanovic crafts a moving family drama that just happens to take place in a nearly-war-torn country. He uses the family and the small town setting as a microcosm of the larger national problem. You also, to comedic effect, get a fair amount of townspeople who respond to the change in regimes with a “I guess we’re doing this now,” attitude which is emblematic of the majority of people during most struggles.
A problem I encountered comes not from the film itself, but a quote on the DVD box. Prominently featured on the front cover is a quote by The New York Times’ Stephen Holden which calls Cirkus Columbia, “[A] scalding black comedy about the insanity of war.” Based on this, I was expecting a film similar in tone to Dr. Strangelove or the much less effective War, Inc. This is certainly not the kind of movie this is. There is a bit of humor in the film, and certainly the filmmaker’s point is that war is insane, especially a “civil” one, but there’s nothing approaching “black comedy” within. It’s much more of a character drama with genuine emotion, something the other quotes about it speak to far more. This was quite an endearing, enjoyable film with a point and a purpose, but going into it expecting a “black comedy” is setting yourself up for a bit of a letdown.