“A Perfect Day” is a war movie yet there are no scenes of combat. “A Perfect Day” is a war movie yet soldiers, or at least men with guns and uniforms, are in short supply, mostly irritants and distractions to the film’s protagonists.
“A Perfect Day” is a war movie with considerable tension yet its heroes accomplish very little. The title, in fact, is a joke: What’s perfect about the 24-hour day you witness is that everything goes perfectly wrong.
Spanish director Fernando León de Aranoa, who makes documentaries and fictional features, focuses his camera on humanitarian aid workers in a war zone, in this case “somewhere in the Balkans” as that civil war winds down in 1995.
Off-hand I can’t recall another film devoted solely to such workers in war. They are as crucial as the doctors and nurses who tend to the grievously wounded — indeed a major movie and TV series, “M*A*S*H,” was once devoted to those war-zone players — but somehow aid workers are background players in most war movies.
León de Aranoa believes there is real heroism in the mere fact of such workers being there, in war zones, doing a job daily that is dangerous, nasty, thankless and utterly essential to everyone, victims and perpetrators alike.
So he and co-writer Diego Farias (adapting a novel by Paula Farias) present a “routine” day in the lives of several such workers at the time peace is threatening to break out in the war-torn Balkans. Alas no one is certain whether he believes or should even honor the conditions of peace.
Such a film, not unlike the movie and TV series M*A*S*H,” or for that matter such fiction as Joseph Heller’s “Catch-22” or even, in a way, Jerzy Kosinski’s controversial “The Painted Bird,” must delve into black humor and irrational behavior.
The perfect day in question sees no life saved by heroic deeds or a great love blossoming under peril and stress. Rather it involves two bizarre searches for objects as disparate as a rope and a ball.
That superb actor Benicio del Toro plays Mambrú, the Puerto Rican head of the rescue workers, who is paired, as these things go, with a hard-bitten veteran and a wide-eyed rookie. Tim Robbins is B — that’s his only name — a seen-it-all logistics expert, while French actress Mélanie Thierry plays Sophie, a water purification expert.
The latter task is at the center of the day’s activity as partisans (it’s deliberately unclear who are patricians of what as the film avoids politics) have dumped a large man’s corpse into a well. This rather primitive attempt at biological warfare is unusually effective though for if the body is not extracted soon the well will be poisoned forever.
For that matter no tasks prove easy as the workers, supported by a wary but reliable translator, Damir (Fedja Štukan), must negotiate their way through a mountain terrain where kids carry guns and partisans may not respect a cease fire.
Oh, yes, one other small problem: Militias have planted land mines everywhere. So the carcass of a cow in the middle of a road undoubtedly means a land mine exists on one side or the other of the dead animal in expectation that a vehicle will drive around it and thereby set off an explosion that will usher its occupants into another world.
These intrepid travels are soon joined by a beauteous Ukrainian, Katya (Olga Kurylenko), a conflict evaluation analyst, who shares a tempestuous past with Mambrú that complicates the journey, and 9-year-old Nikola (Eldar Rešidović), who demands a new ball to replace one stolen from him by older boys.
The film’s tone is one of off-handed black comedy where wisecracks and offbeat situations disguise horrors just beneath the surface of things, like those land mines that may explode at any moment.
The director and his cinematographer, Alex Catalán, employ a lot of drone shots flying over cars as they travel dangerous mountain roads in a countryside whose beauty belies the horrors taking place in the grass. I might complain such shots get overused, but I think León de Aranoa would reasonably counter that this represents a godlike view of man’s inhumanity so it serves a purpose.
The challenge, not entirely met by the film, in presenting a day where goals remain elusive and conflicts unresolved, is the film struggles to establish a dramatic tension that can build to satisfying climaxes or deep character reveals.
This film, I suspect, comes partially from the documentarian side of the filmmaker’s brain, the one passionately resolved to let reality speak for itself without too much interference from the dictates of fictional craftsmanship.
Instead León de Aranoa relies on a strong cast to deliver the nuances and subtext among these disparate characters, of such different nationalities and emotions, as they struggle through another risky day in the war zone.
Del Toro, ever sleepy-eyed and laconic, can play laid-back machismo about as well as any actor who has ever appeared in film. (See the underappreciated “Sicario,” only a few months ago.) He is the film’s anchor, its center of gravity, the person the other characters play off of and react to.
He is also its moral force, knowing when to acquiesce to the irrationally of authority (which is not going to budge anyway) and thereby back away from danger at checkpoints or confrontations with UN officials and soldiers.
Robbins’ B is not quite burnt-out, not yet anyway, but rather accepting of war’s absurdity and not longer fazed by his potential demise at any moment.
Thierry’s character represents innocence still untrammeled by life’s disappointments. Her eventual transformation into the world-weariness of other aid workers won’t, the film seems to suggest, take long, however.
Kurylenko’s character remains unresolved. In adapting Farias’ novel, perhaps the filmmakers brought her character into the movie only partially realized so the role she plays, that of a mostly unwilling passenger in the aid workers’ cars, never finds a satisfactory dramatic raison d’être.
The youngest actor, Rešidović, acquits himself nicely, never overplaying the role of victim and even with a little deceit of his own as it will turn out.
“A Perfect Day” is by no means a perfect movie, its drama ragged at time and its comedy a little flat in places. Its strengths are its cast, the arresting setting (with Spanish locations in Granada, Malaga and Cuenca stand in for the Balkans) and tracks from iconic rock groups like the Velvet Underground, Ramones and Buzzcocks nicely punctuating the soundtrack in just the right spots.
Opens: January 15, 2016 In theaters and On Demand (IFC Films)
Production company: Reposado Producciones, Mediapro, Televisión Española
Cast: Benicio Del Toro, Tim Robbins, Olga Kurylenko, Mélanie Thierry, Fedja Štukan, Eldar Rešidović, Sergi López
Director: Fernando León de Aranoa
Screenwriters: Fernando León de Aranoa, Diego Farias
Based on the novel by: Paula Farias
Producers: Fernando León de Aranoa, Jaume Roures
Executive producers: Patricia de Muns, Javier Méndez
Director of photography: Alex Catalán
Production designer: Cesar Macarrón
Music: Arnau Bataller
Costume designer: Fernando Garcia
Editor: Nacho Ruiz Capillas
No rating, 106 minutes