By James Kenney
A Perfect Day is a discreet, overlooked surprise set in the Balkans during wartime, where a roving gang of humanitarian aid workers attempts to acquire a rope to remove a cadaver that has been intentionally dropped in a well, contaminating drinking water for the desperate locals. This proves an impossible mission, and for almost two hours, A Perfect Day is a surprisingly bright and dryly witty black comedy focusing on this mangy group of dysfunctional complainers who lack the common sense to negotiate a normal day, but who are unusually centered and pragmatic in chaos, able to traverse both the hazardous physical terrain and the brittle psyches of the war-scarred locals. The film’s forlornly funny horrors (dead cows concealing landmines) and appalling straightforward horrors (murder, starvation), which are mostly inferred, don’t add up to much, which is sort of the point. It isn’t entirely clear how much aid these aid workers are actually contributing, which is why Katya (Olga Kurylenko), some sort of evaluative expert, is sent to appraise their success. With one foot in reality, she believes in the cause, but knows that her ex-lover Mambru (Benicio Del Toro) runs on different energies than the rest of us, and his crew’s current activities may indeed be a superfluous waste to their budget-starved aid group.
The film’s tragicomic tone is its own, not belligerent or forced. Whether focusing on a small boy whose parents have been lynched in the backyard of their house or on U.N. “Peacekeepers” who apologetically subvert the aid workers’ efforts to get that damn corpse out of the well, the film’s pathos is small and modulated; you have to pay attention to emotionally respond to the goings-on, which is a strength of the film’s approach.
The film’s screwy, understated virtues are best expressed in the relationship between the Del Toro and Kurylenko characters. The actors have chemistry and timing, at odds with each other about relationships and truth, and in the best Hollywood tradition, something same-old in me wanted to see these two work it out and back in each other’s arms. The movie doesn’t quite give us this outcome, nor does it sabotage it; it leaves it (and most everything it explores) hanging in the air. Fernando Leon De Arano’s script (co-written by Diego Farias) and direction has a gentle quality which leaves the viewer feeling pleasingly under-manipulated –there is none of the mechanical, over-emphatic style found in so much of today’s cinema.
While the subtle style on occasion was a bit too ambiguous, and some plot strands just dither away, this aimlessness can be taken as a comic attitude – the film has all sorts of opportunities to develop into some sort of stalwart action movie about the aid workers “taking a stand” or “getting involved” but never quite takes its own bait. There’s an amusing sparseness the film has that might take a while for a viewer to adjust to – the film is all open landscapes that nevertheless are faintly claustrophobic — but the lack of melodrama and gore leads to a rather sprightly tone that contrasts well with the browns and greys of destruction that is the film’s setting.
Del Toro gives a thoughtful, lived-in performance as Mambru, getting close enough to quitting that he wants to pretend he no longer really cares. Tim Robbins is typically sly as “B,” a willfully eccentric but not disagreeable aid worker who fancies himself some kind of pirate and survives in the wilderness on pure will, generally saying what comes to his mind before it has actually arrived. He and Del Toro credibly embody what the film suggests all aid workers will come to be; nihilists cynical about the world and its possibilities who nevertheless care. Melanie Thierry as Sophie, the group’s water purification expert, is the flipside, the girl who cares too much (which is probably necessary to first step into this unforgiving, thankless line of work) because she hasn’t yet seen enough to convince herself it’s hopeless. She isn’t all dried out, and Thierry expresses this potentially histrionic character with composure and grace. Fedja Stukan gives a fitfully guarded, worried and graceful performance as Damur, the one man in their crew who speaks the local language and knows the terrain, which proves no help at all when communicating with either corrupt soldiers or weather-beaten, stunned locals craving water.
Kurylenko, a personal favorite, shows the spirit and guarded energy that was misused in the tired action film Momentum; she is amusing and charismatic in her role, which is half Sophie/half Mambru. She is no longer the idealist Sophie is, but still allows herself traditional emotions that aren’t so useful in navigating the present terrain. She’s tough, but you feel she would be really receptive to a hug.
The press kit for A Perfect Day says the film’s “only genre is life itself. Like a Russian doll, it’s a drama inside a comedy, inside a road movie, inside a war movie.” That self-assessment is rather grandiose in its language, but not really wrong, either. A Perfect Day is a roguishly charming film about good-hearted cynics and outcasts who have found in war zones, with their military checkpoints, dead livestock, mined roads and orphaned children, their home; this place needs them, and they need it. De Aranoa demonstrates understanding of the real world (a rare trait in filmmakers these days) and a welcome tendency to avoid noisy declarations; the film has a message, but it sees little sense in trying to ram it down your throat. It is rare to pull off a film about man’s inhumanity toward man in as easygoing and subtly humorous style as A Perfect Day has. The film works in small ways that count; it should be seen.