Article on The Reaper (Zvonimir Juric), the winning CAMIRA prize film in Filmadrid.
For many of us who were born in the late seventies or early eighties in Europe and grew up in the last years before the fall of Berlin Wall, images of war were more than often closely related to the sensationalism-prone narratives and aesthetics that developed under the umbrella of the Reagan-era anti-soviet hard stance and Vietnam War revisionism. In a nutshell, under the exposure of dozens of these films flowing from our TV sets, an image of war could very well resemble in our children’s minds that of Sylvester Stallone wearing a headband and shooting Vietnamese enemies.
Suddenly, by 1991, all these epic tacky portraits that had even shaped some of our children’s playground games were reduced to a mere joke -a joke that wasn’t funny anymore-. That year, the war in Yugoslavia broke and, during the next years, the images of war that came to inhabit our TVs were those of actual violence and suffering. Stories of mass rape and ethnic cleansing were complemented by new images: snipers shooting at unarmed people in Sarajevo, refugees walking on the road while being gazed by soldiers, a bomb causing mayhem in a market. We were teenagers by then and I guess that, at least, some of us, far from having become numb after watching Hollywood-designed violence-, were shocked to learn that war was, after all, real.
In these early nineties, while the international section in newscasts kept on showing on a daily basis the dramatic events in Yugoslavia, I developed my own interest in filmmaking and watched many films in that period. One of them, the Macedonian film, Before the Rain, made in 1994 by Milko Manchevski, addressed the difficulty of healing and reconciliation in the so-called Balkan puzzle. I am under the impression that this film, despite having won the Golden Lion in Venice and being nominated to an Academy Award, is somehow forgotten. However, it became for me an instrumental film in learning the power of fiction cinema to translate the images I watched in the TV into the broader picture -some would mistakenly say narrower- of individual life stories.
Divided in three parts, one of them showed an ethnic Albanian girl fleeing a mob who accused her of murdering an ethnic Macedonian. In 1994, the media attention focused on the conflict in Bosnia, overlooking other problems in the region. Thanks to Before the Rain, I learned not only to understand another issued that would become crucial four years later, that is, the problematic situation of ethnic Albanians in the former Yugoslav republics, but also how to transcribe in a cinematic proposal slightly borrowed from the codes of the thriller genre, the deepest scars of history and conflict, in a mise-en-scéne that was strong enough to confront past and present in each of the characters’ actions.
Twenty years later, The Slovenian and Croat production The Reaper, directed by Zvonimir Juric, also relies -more heavily than Manchevski’s film- on the thriller genre as a basis to draw a depiction of the ethic implications of individual actions in a post-war society. Juric uses a very simple plot: a middle-aged woman -Mirjana- driving through the countryside at night runs out of fuel. She finds an older man -Ivo- working in a nearby field with his tractor. He offers to help her out and drives her to a solitary gas station. There, a young man -Josip- recognizes the tractor and warns the woman to be careful as Ivo was prosecuted and jailed twenty years ago for abusing and raping a woman.
This very first mention to an event that certainly took place during the war hovers over the first third of the movie, in which the tension between the characters grows steady. In an Hitchcock-influenced style that highlights the vulnerability of the woman -most of the time being gazed at from behind by the tight-lipped Ivo metaphorically hidden in the dark cabin of its tractor, his body presence integrated with the tractor’s headlights and the persistent sound of its engine-.
Cleverly positioning the viewer in Mirjana’s position, step by step, the plot starts diverting from the the thriller genre and immerses into the deeper waters of moral reflection, more specifically on the meaning of critical issues such as forgiveness and goodness in a society marked by a violent past. Apart from avoiding the temptation of introducing spoilers, there is no point in further explaining the surprising turns of the plot, let’s just remark that the film is divided into three intertwined parts in which each character -Mirjana, as we have mentioned, in the first one; Josip, in the second one; and a local policeman, Kreso, in the last section- and has to face a decision involving giving or denying a chance for Ivo’s atonement.
Therefore, in each “chapter” we jump from one character’s point of view to another’s as in a relay race, and witness the consequences of a number of good-willed actions that turn out to have harmful consequences and, therefor, showing us the huge obstacle that erects itself in the middle of any social relationship when trying to overcome a guilty past. Juric’s film wonders what justice, memory and forgiveness really mean but can’t offer a statement. In the uncanny and grim atmosphere that pervades the film, the answer lies hidden, as if looming behind the fog that is present throughout the story.
At the end of the film, Kreso, the cop, unable to express in words what the events he has seen -the whole film’s narrative lasts only one night- stares at the field Ivo uses to reap in the night, when everyone else is sleeping, enjoying the silence and the pleasure of his duty. He seems to admire Ivo’s dedication, the carefulness and tact which requires such a simple action. He seems to understand that the respect with which he carries out his lone work is his way to atone his sins of the past, his guilt. Only a wheat field can offer relief. Not certainly the ill world of humans, where even good will is poisoned. Kreso gets in the car and drives home. His wife has been caring their newborn child the whole day and is asleep. He gets into the cozy bed by her side. The ghosts may wait outside. At least, tonight.
Javier Fernández Vázquez