All they need is a rope; of course, that’s not the real point of Fernando León de Aranoa’s A Perfect Day, but the story stays about that simple, and it works.
During the mid-90s, veteran aid workers Mambrú (Benicio Del Toro) and B (Tim Robbins) are joined by newcomer Sophie (Mélanie Thierry) in the war-torn Balkans. Their goal is to remove a dead body from the only well in the area not laced with mines, but their only rope snaps during their first attempt. Joined by their interpreter Damir (Fedja Stukan), local youth Nikola (Eldar Residovic), and Mambrú’s old flame Katya (Olga Kurylenko), the group sets out to find another rope, which is not an easy feat in such a harsh landscape.
The brilliance of the film is the simplicity of it all; the dangers are kept internal, never erupting into unnecessary or vulgar depiction. Instead of drawing the focus to violence, everything is kept within the human element, choosing to show the impact of war on the civilians who are just trying to survive; clear markings on their vehicles indicate that the group is unarmed. Significance is drawn from what the characters experience and how it changes them; entertainment is taken from the characters themselves and the things about them which don’t change.
The picture demonstrates the necessity of levity in harsh circumstances with a circular narrative. Sophie begins the film enjoying the witty banter between the delightful duo of Del Toro and Robbins. As the film progresses, however, she experiences the tensions and tragedies of war from the civilian’s perspective (particularly through the life of young Nikola) and leaves the audience wondering how the veteran aid workers can keep everything so light. By the ending, however, Sophie comes to understand that in order to make a difference, persistence is vital - and in order to carry on, they have to be able to let go of their heavier experiences.
A war story told with human interest at heart requires a strong cast, and the casting for this one is exceptional. The two veterans find a great rhythm, and the female cast is led by the wonderful Thierry who manages to capture the depth of a character with whom the audience identifies most. Special mentions go to supporting players Kurylenko, Stukan, and some particularly strong acting from young Residovic. With such a delightful and engaging ensemble, it is easy to get invested in the story, and once the audience is invested, the impact of the film’s themes doesn’t need to be hammered in with brutality.
Nothing needs to explode or burn in order to capture the struggles endured by civilians in war, and Aranoa sets his sights on a small scale to present grandiose themes of wartime politics and survival. The film elects not to grab its audience by the collar, instead putting its arm on our shoulder gently - and that’s what makes it great.
A Perfect Day is now playing at The Hyland Cinema.
4.5 (out of 5)
Thomas Vickers is a London-based filmmaker and The Beat Magazine's resident film critic.