The tone is established early on when a small group of Bosnian soldiers get lost in a fog. Huddled together, waiting for the air to clear, they talk. "What is the difference between an optimist and a pessimist?" asks Ciki (Branko Djuric). "A pessimist thinks things can't get worse; an optimist knows they can." Very soon, of course, things do get worse: When the fog clears, a firefight breaks out between the Bosnians and a nearby unit of Serbs. Ciki survives by rolling into an open-air trench, a long, thin gash in the earth that lies halfway between the Bosnian and Serb military lines -- no man's land. Before long he is joined by Nino (Rene Bitorajac), a frightened, rather clumsy Serbian soldier who has been ordered to check out the foxhole.
Despite clearly being stuck in the same boat, the two men can't stop hurling epithets at each other or trying to gain the upper hand. Any momentary shift in power proves a hollow victory, of course, since neither man can raise his head above the trench without getting shot at by both their Serb and Bosnian brethren. Making survival even less likely is a third body in the trench, that of Cera (Filip Sovagovic), a Bosnian soldier lying on top of a bomb rigged to explode if he moves.
Marchand (Georges Siatidis), a French sergeant with the U.N. peace-keeping force UNPROFOR, learns of the men's plight and tries to help, despite orders from his superiors not to get involved. When a British journalist, Jane Livingstone (Katrin Cartlidge), hears of the rescue attempt, she and a phalanx of other reporters race to the site, turning the event into a media circus.
Practically no one emerges unscathed in Tanovic's cleverly conceived and written script, which was named best screenplay at last May's Cannes Film Festival. Antiwar, rather than anti-Serb, it is a blistering attack on the U.N.'s utter ineffectualness; on the bloodthirsty, ratings-obsessed media; and on the warring factions themselves, whose similarities far outweigh their differences. Using satire as his building blocks and irony as his mortar, Tanovic exposes a level of insanity and absurdity that has become sadly commonplace in today's world.
The ironies zing by. The U.N. high command in the region, Colonel Soft (Simon Callow), claims he can't act without orders from his superiors, a time-honored don't-blame-me defense that allows everyone in the chain of command an excuse for inaction (the colonel seems far more concerned with seducing his secretary than attending to the conflict anyway). Falling back on a policy of neutrality, the U.N. basically sits back and watches as the combatants slaughter one another. If the film has a hero, it is Marchand, who is sick of being a bystander and rightly observes that "doing nothing to stop it is taking sides." But even his efforts are brimming with irony since he has to expend as much time and effort in preventing Ciki and Nino from killing each other as he does in trying to rescue the three men from the foxhole. Perhaps the film's most delicious irony is reserved for the end and concerns the ambitious and self-absorbed Livingstone.
Most of No Man's Land takes place in a 10-by-15-foot hole in the ground, yet the film feels neither stagy nor static, and it never becomes boring. In fact, it is consistently amusing, filled with small, "inside" jokes, such as the German bomb expert who arrives punctually at 3:30, the exact time he is expected. The film reverberates with anger and intelligence, wit and despair. Hope is harder to distinguish, yet the very fact that Tanovic can still find humor is itself a hopeful sign. He rejects the label "black comedy" for his work, describing it, instead, as "a very serious film with a sense of humor." It is an apt description for a very remarkable film, one of the best of the season.