Film Review: An Ordinary Man

This potentially fine film about a Bosnian War criminal and his need for companionship misses the mark but is interesting as an example of a current film genre.
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Humanizing a war criminal is tricky and sticky. We’re not talking about dramatizing the banality of evil (and all that jazz), but rather making a man accused of the most appalling atrocities vulnerable, anguished and engaging, just a guy in need of personal connection.

Brad Silberling, who wrote and directed An Ordinary Man, attempts to do precisely that and succeeds to the extent that the always-fine Ben Kingsley plays the title role and, more to the point, we’re never told who he is or what he did during the war—in this instance, the Bosnian War (1992-1995). Hey, if we don’t know his crimes, we can afford to feel empathy.

Indeed, he has no name short of “General”—he’s conceived as a kind of abstraction—and he’s a fugitive in plain sight asserting that he will not hide and he will not be taken. Okay, that’s not uninteresting. Still, the viewer’s willingness to go for the ride (and not fret too much over what felonies he’s charged with) is essential. So, too, is suspending disbelief on virtually every other front.

The film was shot in Belgrade, though it’s not made clear where it’s taking place, and the General is loosely inspired by Ratko Mladic, dubbed “The Butcher of Bosnia,” who was sentenced to life in prison, having been found guilty of crimes against humanity and genocide (or “ethnic cleansing”) during the Bosnian War.

The General is irascible, suspicious, at moments a justifiably paranoid figure battling a handful of collaborators who are determined to protect him despite his lack of gratitude. First stumbling block: If he’s that unhappy with their intrusive presence, why don’t they just leave him alone? In fact, why hasn’t he attempted to flee the country altogether?

The actual Mladic did elude capture for 14 years by, according to all accounts, holing up in various safe houses in the region with the help of loyalists whom he terrorized into submission. But that’s not the story being told in the fictionalized version that cries out for explanation, if not voiced than at least hinted at.

In this cinematic spin, the General is living a hermit-like existence in a semi-abandoned slum when Tanja (Icelandic up-and-comer Hera Hilmar), a young woman who claims to be a housekeeper, surfaces and within short order an uneasy alliance is forged as biographical tidbits are disclosed on both sides. We learn that the General’s daughter was killed during the War and that Tanja lost her parents in the conflict. They morph into a kind of surrogate father-daughter duo, though a flirtatious subtext is also present.

There are some nice scenes early on: She can’t cook to save her life and he tries to remedy the situation, showing her how to choose the right vegetable and chop it properly. Her lack of culinary skill should send up a red flag that she’s not who she claims to be. But somehow that escapes the General’s attention. Either way, it’s entertaining to watch his demonstration with a red pepper and her attempts to follow suit.

Later, increasingly emboldened, he takes her dancing. That’s a particularly evocative sequence. Set in a ballroom right out of the 1950s, it’s all very Eastern European, with an accordion player on hand as couples sashay across the floor and festoons of small, dimly lit bulbs dangle from wall to wall beneath the ceiling.

The film’s production value is its high point, thanks to Christophe Beck Gonzales’ haunting piano compositions, Miljen Kreka Kljakovic's detailed set design and Magdalena Górka's spot-on photography. The sense of place is palpable: the graffiti-covered, war-torn buildings on eerily empty streets, as well as the lush greenery and sweeping mountains not far from the urban blight.

The movie’s major problem is that the two leads need to be riveting individually and evolve collectively. They’re not and they don’t. Admittedly, the General has some good lines that reveal unexpected facets, like “I’m a romantic and a monogamist.” He also defines himself in grandiose terms. “I’m everywhere, I’m nowhere. I’m myth.” But a few intriguing quips are not enough. His speaking at Tanja doesn’t help.

Kingsley is no stranger to multi-leveled characters (think Gandhi, House of Sand and Fog, Death and the Maiden and Hugo, not to mention Schindler’s List) who embody a host of contradictions while striving for connections that are at once intense and tenuous. Regrettably, he doesn’t have the material here to do that; nor does Hilmar. Tanja is motivation-free.

No spoiler alert, since it’s obvious she is not a maid at all but an official agent there to protect the General. At the aforementioned dance as his erstwhile comrades flank him, ready to spirit him away from her (and her lax protection of him), she divulges her true identity, gun in hand, outmaneuvering highly trained muscular operatives, taking flight with the General in tow.

Now the story gets even sillier. He suffers a heart attack and one day later (talk about a speedy recovery) decides to travel into the hinterlands with Tanja as his driver. Is he going home to die or revisit the scenes of his crimes to make amends? Who knows? But they’re on the lam with the security forces closing in.

Despite the script’s serious limitations, Kingsley is fun to watch and The General is a 90-minute vehicle for him. He speaks for almost the entire film with barely a breather. Speaking of speaking, Kingsley et al. had the good sense to avoid mimicking a Serbian accent or, more probably, a hybrid of ill-defined Europeanisms in the name of authenticity. (It’s a common practice that leads to the opposite.) All the actors speak English with whatever native accents they bring to the table.

Silberling made a good choice there. But his decision to branch into a historical-political arena misses the mark. An Ordinary Man is a far cry from his eclectic body of work that spans genres from the fantastical to the dramatic (City of Angels, Moonlight Mile, 10 Items or Less, Caspar, Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events). Nonetheless, it’s interesting as yet another example of a film that purports to demonstrate the trendy concept of “relativism” when it comes to the depiction of war criminals. One man’s heroic figure is a monster to another. It’s all subjective (an arguable thesis) and it doesn’t really matter anyway. A massacre is a massacre, and if you’re dead, you’re dead. It’s no oversight that we learn nothing about the General’s wartime activities.

Likewise, in Final Journey, a film that just made its American debut at the KINO!, a festival of new German films, a 92-year-old man takes a trip to his war-torn Ukrainian homeland in an effort to track down the love of his life whom he lost in the Second World War, just as a new war breaks out in the former Soviet Union in the spring of 2014. Here, too, the film is deliberately vague about what the issues were (are) or indeed who the good guys (bad guys) were (are), respectively.

Nowhere is this trend more marked than in the treatment of Nazis. Until fairly recently, conventional wisdom viewed Germans as a monolithic Nazi collaborating bloc. Today, it’s not as easy to level collective blame. Bernhard Schlink’s The Reader, the extraordinary novel made into a shockingly dishonest film, and Anthony Doerr’s overrated and equally disingenuous best-selling All the Light We Cannot See are classic examples of the new ilk and sensibility.

The grisly and sentimentalized drama 13 Minutes, recounting the experiences of an ordinary German citizen who attempted to assassinate Hitler, is yet another example. Alone in Berlin, zeroing in on a real-life middle-aged couple who attempted to sabotage the Nazi machine, raised more questions than offered answers, but it was a vivid contribution to the crop whose subtext is that unexceptional Germans fought back; they were just like everyone else and, given the right circumstances, anyone could have been swept up in a maelstrom of Nazism without understanding any of it.

In Barbet Schroeder’s Amnesia,a schematic character study focusing on a young German musician and his relationship with a middle-aged German woman, the film’s Nazi (the wonderful Bruno Ganz) is portrayed in all his twisted perversity, but hisdescendants are given a new voice, suggesting that the connective tissue between the German of today and yesterday is inevitably (and understandably) fraying.

An Ordinary Manis an especially frustrating film. Within parameters it holds your interest, though it’s not remotely as thought-provoking as the pictures I just cited. Whether or not you’re in synch with their politics, the directors are saying something. It’s unclear what An Ordinary Man is getting at. It has its moments, but in the end the threads don’t mesh.

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