You don’t need to know a lot about the wars in former Yugoslavia to watch Dalibor Matanic’s The High Sun/Zvizdan, and that might not really be a good thing. Its main attraction point lies in its artifice: it’s a three-part film where the main two actors (Goran Markovic and Tihana Lazovic) play some sort of couple in three stories of consecutive moments of the recent past; the two characters change their name and the degree of their initial acquaintance, but preserve their age (they’re seemingly in their late twenties) and their first-stated nationalities. The place of the action remains largely unspecified (somewhere along the border between Serbia and Croatia), which lends it allegorical implications. The High Sun employs familiar stories that feel ‘universal’ with the detriment of not saying much about the place it’s actually set in and the events it uses as backdrops. Sure, there is a recognizable element of Romeo-and-Juliet dynamic to the Serbo-Croat pairing of the two protagonists, but the fact that it’s comprehensible shouldn’t in itself be a get-out-of-jail-free card in treating regional history. The first and second parts of the film are set in 1991 and 2001 (the beginning and end of the Yugoslav Wars), with the final section set in 2011 to witness the countries’ ultimate absorption into global capitalism; since the impact of military events on the safety and the mentality of the characters is rather generic, it seems like the clearly defined temporal setting is primarily chosen to resonate with those spectators who still remember the news.
In spite of its simplifications, the film does have notable accomplishments. The division into distinct parts makes us question what, of what we’ve learned about the characters in the previous part, is still valid, and wonder by extension how the characters live. For instance, in the first story, the girl’s brother is standing in the way of the two lovers who long to be together, telling her she should be wary of choosing a man from the ‘other side’. In the second part, presented in a rather different historical setting, the two are not yet a couple and the Serbian girl’s mother is trying to persuade her to take note of the Croatian young man who helps the two of them with house work; the girl retorts that people like him (i.e. Croatians) killed her brother. Since the third part is set a decade after the war, in a more prosperous society, the film subtly makes the point that the obstacle standing now between them and preventing them to settle down is simply the young man’s lure of irresponsibility.
Taking full advantage of its Dalmatian filming location (by the side of the Peruća Lake), the film repeatedly places the couple’s romance against the unspoiled natural beauty of their surrounding – the green, green grass and unpaved roads of home. (Occasionally, this unironic love of the elemental verges into involuntary camp in some more heated sequences – to paraphrase the Alien tagline: in an isolated Serbian house, no one can hear you scream). The first and final images of the three stories are also usually reserved for documentary-style footage showing how the ex-Yugoslavian space has gone to ruins during the war and how it has blossomed during the 2000s.
The two actors’ performance commands special attention since their presence (along with the geographical location) is what ties the film together. Due to their largely different personae in the three acts, it has its degree of gimmickry – like a public acting exercise in variation, with the instructions provided to them by the changing set design. It’s also a spin on conventional diegetic markers that signal the passing of time – it’s as if, instead of aging makeup being applied to the cast, it’s applied to the world around them, while the lovers themselves preserve their youth. This still implies, however, that they have to be resourceful to pull through, and they undeniably are: Lazovic has a distinguished lack of narcissism throughout, in physical appearance and acting range (in the second part especially, as the chauvinistic country girl caught between her female urges and her unwillingness to become intimate with ‘the other’); Markovic goes from being a jester to being a repentant playboy with very little dialogue, in either story, to serve as crutch to his performance.
To see The High Sun as a play with grassroots historical reenactment could reveal new points of interest. Nostalgia is and has been a pretty strong catalyst for filmmakers and the Croatian director is talented in conveying unglamourized passion for life; it’s only fair that every generation and nationality inscribes its own when-we-were-young memories on film, and the film has sufficient artifice to keep us engaged with something that is essentially superficial. Judged as political commentary, however, the film is pretty thin – it relies on the respectability of its subject to be taken as profound and it conforms to an outsider’s view on social change in the Eastern bloc. The knowledge you take from the film about the Yugoslav Wars is just about the knowledge you had going in.