The Load (“Teret”) (Ognjen Glavonić, 2018) 4 out of 4 stars.
The year is 1999, and war is raging in the Balkans, specifically in Kosovo, the former semi-autonomous region of Yugoslavia struggling as Serbs and Albanians fight for control. NATO has just joined the fray, bombing the area on a daily basis. Life goes on, regardless, as it always does for ordinary folks caught in the crossfire of conflicts since the dawn of time. But how, exactly, to live? That’s the question. Fortysomething Vlada has chosen to earn his wages driving a truck for the Serbian military, tasked with transporting a mysterious cargo – he’s not allowed to look – from Kosovo to Belgrade. “Don’t stop, ever,” his bosses tell him, but circumstances nevertheless force a few detours. Joining him, we take a journey through a landscape not as hellish as one might think, yet nonetheless a horror, however slow that nightmare builds. Ethnic cleansing hides in plain sight.
Director Ognjen Glavonić (Depth Two) tells his somber tale indirectly, focusing mostly on the drive from Kosovo, Vlada’s impassive face harboring emotions long ago suppressed. The surrounding country shares the same funk, Glavonić departing from the main narrative, at times, to reveal the legacy of a failed state. Just ten years after the communist dominos began to fall, toppling the barriers of the Iron Curtain, the promises of Western democracies and capitalism have not produced the expected paradise, at least not here. Glavonić and his cinematographer, Tatjana Krstevski – present but unobtrusive with her handheld camera – follow each micro-story long enough to contextualize Vlada’s plight, then return to the truck, where strange noises hint at the awfulness within. Small traces of humanity – a child’s lollipop, a fingerprint on a glass, a lighter marked with a commemorative inscription – remind us that the greatest costs of warfare are the wiping away of empathy and the othering of our enemies. How to remain above it all, or push back against the barbarity?
Actor Leon Lučev is perfect as Vlada, tired before the story even begins. As Paja – an 18-year-old whose path runs parallel to Vlada’s for quite some time – Pavle Čemerikić is equally burnt out, but with the added tragedy that grief looks worse on one so young. Still, Paja has skills (he leaves Vlada with a cassette of his now-defunct band’s music) and a plan to leave for Germany. There’s hope at the end that, despite everything, perhaps Vlada’s son will also make plans, forging a better future for the nation and overcoming the dispiriting bequest of the older generation. Given that Glavonić, himself, born in 1985, was but a kid when these events took place, it seems that hope was not misplaced. Out of misery comes reflection, and this remarkable film is a testament to how the past need not always be absolute prologue, even if history so often repeats itself.