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Covering Bosnia.

By Jim Ridley

MARCH 2, 1998:  Reporting or entertainment--does it belittle the horrors of war to use one to fulfill the aims of the other? The tough, riveting new drama Welcome to Sarajevo is shot through with doubt, and its very uncertainty has moral integrity. Based on a book by British journalist Michael Nicholson, Welcome to Sarajevo rushes headlong into the maelstrom of war-torn Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1992, as Bosnian Serbs besiege the capitol of Sarajevo and massacre Muslim civilians.

The movie centers on a pack of international journalists stationed in the city, specifically on Michael Henderson (Stephen Dillane), a conscience-stricken British reporter. Henderson berates other reporters who step outside their bounds into the story, but he's clearly troubled by the climate of sudden, senseless violence. Appalled by the carnage and the impotence of Western diplomats--and frustrated by the weak impact his stories have back home--Henderson surprises himself by risking his impartiality to rescue a Bosnian refugee, Emira (Emira Nusevic).

Even though Frank Cottrell Boyce's script takes pains to move from the cloistered journalists to the shell-shocked Bosnian neighborhoods, you can be forgiven for thinking, "Great--another movie about foreign conflict that focuses on well-meaning Anglos." But the movie, like Henderson, feels honor-bound to try to reach as many people as possible. When a cocky American broadcaster, played with sardonic, heroic cool by Woody Harrelson, explains that he's using his celebrity to bring exposure to a conflict no one back home cares about, the irony is clear: Isn't that why Woody Harrelson has been cast? (Same goes for Marisa Tomei, who appears as an international caseworker, and for Emily Lloyd, and for Kerry Fox.) Henderson concentrates on orphanages for the obvious emotional pitch to the folks back home; the movie makes the same appeal, narrowing its focus to the plight of an orphaned girl.

Underneath this calculation lies a fury directed at media-lulled Western audiences, who'd rather hear about Fergie's divorce than the unpleasantries of ethnic cleansing. (Harrelson apologetically tells a native there might be more outcry if the situation were reversed and Muslims were exterminating Christians.) In this climate, the pop songs on the soundtrack, especially Bobby McFerrin's infernal "Don't Worry Be Happy," form a running chorus of breezy apathy. For global commentary, the movie artfully assembles quotations from the usual talking heads--President Bill Clinton, British Prime Minister John Major--then punctuates them with news footage that renders them ludicrous. We will not negotiate with terrorists, states President George Bush of U.S. foreign policy. Cut to American diplomats at the table with Serbs.

The director, Michael Winterbottom--whose unclassifiable work to date includes an adaptation of Jude the Obscure and the grim serial-killer drama Butterfly Kiss--hits the ground running. The rapid but precise camera movements draw us into the setting with sock-in-the-gut force, from the jarring opening scene of a wedding party that becomes an ambush. Winterbottom's technique isn't derived from cinema verit, like so many docudramas; it's more like gonzo journalism, which bends the rules of style and punctuation for impressionistic you-are-there accuracy. A good example: When the journalists spill from vans at the site of a massacre, the director freeze-frames them the moment they catch sight of the scene. Some horrors make time stand still.


Life during wartime
Stephen Dillane (left) and Woody Harrelson, embattled correspondents in Welcome to Sarajevo

If the scripted scenes don't mesh seamlessly with the documentary footage, it's because the filmmakers realize there's something faintly obscene about daubing makeup on actors to match the wounds of butchered innocents. The movie conveys Henderson's moral qualms so well because it shares them: Where does coverage end and exploitation begin? A Bosnian girl learns her parents have been killed; the camera follows her down a hallway but stops, unsure whether to intrude on her grief.

Needless to say, there's a price for saying things no one wants to hear. Henderson's stories get bumped from the lead slots. And Welcome to Sarajevo has been dumped without a whisper into the Hollywood 27 googolplex, where it will leave quietly Thursday. That it played at all is surprising. In a staged scene, a Serb executioner pulls out a handgun and dispatches a lineup of prisoners. The camera edges forward; the corpses have fallen onto a pile several bodies deep. You can only watch Welcome to Sarajevo and wish it had come out a few years earlier. But the movie's anger isn't cold; it's hot and human, like blood.

Permafrost

The Winter Guest is the kind of monochromatic exercise in navel-gazing that used to be described as "Bergman-esque"--a catch-all phrase that generally stood for all the things mainstream audiences hated about art movies. An earnest, austere, painfully slow comedy-drama that offers modest rewards to viewers with superhuman patience, The Winter Guest unfolds during a few icy hours in a Scottish seaside village, following the rounds of a lonely widow (Emma Thompson) and her mother (Phyllida Law), who has come to worry her daughter out of her self-absorbed funk.

The script, adapted from Sharman Macdonald's play by the playwright and by actor Alan Rickman (who makes his directorial debut), intercuts the women's walk along the frozen sea with subplots that echo the gentle whimsy of Bill Forsyth's early comedies. A pair of village ladies struggle to attend a high-profile funeral; two kids play hooky and test a possible correlation between deep-heating ointment and penile growth. Rickman deftly handles these transitions at first, particularly in a neat early crane shot that swoops from one character to another, taking in the lay of the entire town in the process. With the help of cinematographer Seamus McGarvey, he composes pretty pictures throughout of couples isolated against stark backgrounds, and his directorial control is always evident.

So evident, in fact, that the tasteful white-on-white compositions start to evoke something very much like cabin fever. Every actor wields the weight of his words like a cudgel; every stroll from A to B becomes a trudge across permafrost. Rickman deserves credit for not playing up the script's mawkish wake-up-and-live tendencies, but his glacial pace mutes what earthy humor the script has: The movie doesn't so much capture the slow passage of time as detain it. When coupled with Michael Kamen's drippy New Age noodling on the soundtrack, the effect is like watching On Golden Pond performed by frostbite victims.

Much has been made of the casting of Law and Thompson, mother and daughter in real life, who get a prickly rhythm going that gives their elliptical conversations the proper mix of affection and annoyance. But their performances, like the script's transitions and themes, are engineered so carefully that the characters fail to come alive. The only thing that makes the movie seem substantial is its very sluggishness. For a movie about the renewal of the spirit, The Winter Guest has a way of sucking the life out of you.


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