Movie Review: A Perfect Day

Benicio Del Toro and Tim Robbins try to get a body out of a well in this dryly funny Bosnian War comedy-drama

A Perfect Day

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Directed by Fernando León de Aranoa. Starring Olga Kurylenko, Benicio Del Toro, Tim Robbins, Mélanie Thierry, Fedja Stukan, Ben Temple, Sergi López, Morten Suurballe. Written by Fernando León de Aranoa, Diego Farias, from the novel by Paula Farias.

A group of aid workers struggles to remove a bloated body from a small village well in the war-torn 1990s Balkans in A Perfect Day, the English-language debut of director Fernando León de Aranoa (Mondays in the Sun).

And that, in a nutshell, is the plot. The group intitially battles the logistical difficulties of lifting the body out of the well, which involves a lot of driving in search for rope when their original cord snaps in two and sends the body splashing below in the film’s opening scene.

But they also battle local ideology and profiteers. Some think the victim must have done something to deserve his fate, and should be left to rot and pollute the well. Others, who likely dumped the body in the first place, are selling off bottles of water to the villagers at inflated prices.

At a general store in the next town, a merchant won’t allow them to purchase rope without supplying much of a reason (ethnic prejudice, we might infer). At a one-man military outpost, a soldier won’t let them use the rope from his flagpole, fearing what might happen if his superiors return and notice their flag missing.  

The aid workers also have to fight international bureaucracy: how they can help, and where, depend on definitions set by UN officials. While they can assist in one area on one day, they may not be able to the next; after an area is re-classified, they’re ordered not to touch a thing, even if that might mean the difference between life and death.

A Perfect Day is, at its heart, a poignant and mordantly funny little riff on the absurdities of war and wartime politics. Condensed, it might make for a terrific 20-minute short.

Unfortunately, the film is a 105-minute feature set around this thin and precocious narrative. It’s low-key every step of the way, and interest wanes as the film drags to its conclusion – though the climactic sequence of events hits all the right notes.

There are scenes of characters navigating minefields, and I’m thinking back to the incredible suspense generated in a film like No Man’s Land. Here, the scenario is played for droll humor, and whiel the film wins a smile or two, any sense of the tension inherent in the situation is lost.

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One big plus, however, is the cast: Benicio Del Toro stars as Mambrú, the leader of this group of Doctors Without Borders, and Tim Robbins is his loose cannon right-hand man, B. The two actors give more nuanced performances than the film seems to deserve; Robbins, in particular, is a hoot in his most memorable role in years.

A little less effective are the two female leads: Mélanie Thierry is newcomer Sophie, who witnesses her first dead body in the waterlogged corpse, while Olga Kurylenko plays Katya, Mambrú’s former colleague (and lover). Fedja Stukan is impressive as the group’s Serbian-speaking translator.

As A Perfect Day’s midsection bogs down with shaggy dog stories and personal entanglements and a subplot involving a young local boy and a stolen ball, it starts to lose the small pleasures needed to sustain the low-key humor. But stick with it: writer-director de Aranoa never loses sight of his story, and finds just the right finale.

The film’s soundtrack features a number of classic hits from the Velvet Underground, the Buzzcocks, and others, though their use makes for something of a jarring departure from the events onscreen. 

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