“Darkling” is a grimly disturbing drama about grief, psychotic stubbornness and paranoia set in the murderous ethnic strife of the 1990s Bosnian War.
A Serbian farmer (Slavko Stivac) is hole- up on his rural Kosovo farm, barring the doors and covering the windows at night, vigilantly standing watch with his shotgun. His sleeplessness is to no avail. He awakens one morning to the sounds of his frantic milk cow and the sight of her calf, dead and tangled in barbed wire.
U.N. Peacekeepers from Italy are summoned, and dutifully fill out a “report,” with farmer Milutin ranting the entire time (in Serbian, and sometimes Italian), about intruders, about being one of the last Serbs holding out here, and how “I’m not leaving until my son and son-in-law” return, or the U.N. can tell him what happened to them.
But he’s not alone this paranoid enclave he’s made for himself. His increasingly distraught daughter (Danica Curcik) is trapped with him, and no amount of flirting and asking for help (charging her cell phone) with the Italians offers her any sort of escape. And then there’s Vukica’s tweenage daughter Milica (Miona Ilov).
She’s the one with only the family dog for comfort, cowering in the dark most nights due to threats real and imagined. She has custody of the family whistle, which the U.N. has futilely handed-out to the surviving Serbs so that they can call for help even if their electricity is cut off and they can’t make a phone call. She’s the one the Italians load into they lumbering armored personnel carrier each morning as they pick up the last Serbian kids in this region to take them to school. There are just six of them left.
And Milica is the one whose letter we hear her compose, an essay for a contest written to “the president of our country” laying out the state of life here and her limited hopes for the future. The winning letter will be read on the floor of the General Assembly at the United Nations.
We see the unfolding tragedy of her family, with lots of foreshadowing as increasingly unhinged grandpa starts booby-trapping the farm to fend off the intruders, who are methodically killing off all the livestock in the area to chase the ethnic-cleansing Serbs out, and thus ethnically cleansing the ethnic cleansers.
Writer-director Dusan Milic reaches for a kind of murky civil-war-is-all-around-us/unseen evil metaphor in this story, and builds towards a fine, unblinking climax.
The viewer knows what the daughter and granddaughter do not, because Grandpa isn’t sharing his assorted security measures with them. A bear trap buried here, a grenade left for him by the Italians there. The women don’t know what perils he’s planted on property which they have to live on, too.
Curcik and Ilov make their characters easy to empathize with, and Stivac ably gets across the murderous stubbornness that so informed this, the biggest European war since WWII, until Putin invaded Ukraine.
We hear lots of griping here about ineffectual U.N. “reports,” see a local (Serbian) official encourage the holdouts to stay because “I need you here,” and can read between the lines about possible ethnic partitions in this bloodily divided land. A priest has even been placed there to help stiffen their revolve, or so it would appear.
But for the victims here, the innocent woman and her daughter, there is nothing but trauma and fear and ever-shrinking possibilities as their plight first this and then that turn for the worse.
It helps to remember some of the history of this war as you pick up on what feels like an agenda, especially in the film’s closing titles. Bosnian Serbs started the shooting and “ethnic cleansing.” Most of the convicted war criminals from this war were Serbian.
So cry me a river over how many churches got burned, as Milic points out in that closing credit. But in a conflict this internecine in nature, the “good guys” “bad guys” lines were blurred and blurred again. All any Serb, Croat or Bosnian who took up arms in this mess succeeded in doing was staying alive, maintaining some stake to possessing and governing this vastly depopulated region of the former Yugoslavia.
“Darkling” reminds us that objective “truth is the first casualty of war,” and “reason” might be the last, and that “innocence” and “sanity” go by the boards somewhere in between.
Rating: unrated, violence, frightening images
Cast: Miona Ilov, Danica Curcik and Slavko Stivac.
Credits: Scripted and directed by Dusan Milic. An Art Vista release.
Running time: 1:49