Directed by Danis Tanović, Cirkus Columbia was the Bosnian entry for the 2010 Best Foreign Language Oscar. It is a picture about war and its consequences, but it approaches things from a slightly unconventional stance and winds up very nearly being a domestic soap opera set against the blossoming of the Bosnian War.
Tanović, who won an Oscar and a Golden Globe for his 2001 debut No Man’s Land, doesn’t present a political picture with Cirkus Columbia. There are elements couched in historical reality, but they operate more as a frame rather than a full subject. The basic premise is a more universally human story, illustrating that even the most ordinary of circumstances can transform into blood-stained passages of history.
The film opens with Martin (Boris Ler), a young man living in Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1991. He lives with his mother, Lucija (Mira Furlan), and is working at setting up a satellite transmission to America. One day, Martin’s relatively easygoing world is transformed as his father, Divko (Miki Manojlović), returns to town. Divko promptly kicks his son and his wife out of their home so that he can move in with his new girlfriend, Azra (Jelena Stupljanin).
Divko, fresh from exile in Germany, desperately wants to reclaim his place atop the food chain in his hometown and he starts to flash his money around. He also tries to reach out to his son. More complications arise when Divko’s cat goes missing. With the forthcoming war and an AWOL feline afoot, Divko, Martin, Lucija, and Azra’s lives intertwine in surprising (and not so surprising) ways.
Manojlović, a native Serbian, has acted in over 50 films. He worked with Tanović on 2005’s Hell (L’Enfer) and certainly has a convincing presence. He is quite good, playing a character that is immediately unpleasant and yet not without the possibility of redemption. His Divko is fiercely superior upon his return to town.
The main thrust of Cirkus Columbia lies in how the various relationships come together and split apart. The growing affection between Azra and Martin seems destined from the outset and where they end up is hardly unexpected. Divko and Lucija share a relationship that appears fraught with jeopardy and past harms, but the picture doesn’t spend enough time exploring it.
There is also an interesting dynamic between Martin and his friend Pivac (Mario Knezović). The approaching war seems to give Pivac a vehicle with which to exact the physicality of what seems to be rather dormant feelings toward Martin and the results are surprising. Their friendship is vulnerable and volatile.
Cirkus Columbia isn’t really a war movie, although it is firmly couched in the idea of imminent conflict. The climax is unquestionably compelled by the forthcoming Bosnian War, but most of the characters are driven by other forces that presumably would’ve come to fruition regardless of the historical context. This makes for an interesting set of circumstances, as one has to wonder about the necessity of placing this in wartime. It does have some interesting things to say about how humans change in the face of conflict and the roots of conflict in general, at least in this case, but Tanović’s primary concern is the personal.
Cirkus Columbia is a fairly good motion picture, but the characters really could’ve used more exploration. A leaner approach would’ve enabled greater connection to the characters, especially that of Divko, but the focus of the film is somewhat scattered. Tanović spends too much time trying to tag the various bases, like when he faintly jabs at the post-Communist environs, and too little time developing the humans behind this very human of stories. It is available on DVD from Strand Releasing.