A Perfect Day (2015) / Drama-Comedy
MPAA Rated: R for language including some sexual references
Running Time: 106 min.
Cast: Benicio del Toro, Tim Robbins, Melanie Thierry, Olga Kurylenko, Fedja Stukan, Eldar Residovic
Director: Fernando Leon de Aranoa
Screenplay: Fernando Leon de Aranoa, Diego Farias (based on the novel, "Dejarse llover" by Paula Farias)
Review published January 17, 2016
Set "somewhere in the Balkans" over the course of one day in 1995, in the waning but still volatile end of the war in Kosovo, a few humanitarian workers are on a mission to remove a dead and decaying corpse from a well that supplies most of the surrounding village with the water they so desperately need. However, they lack an adequate rope to haul the obese man's body up with, and no one around in the war-beaten land seems to be willing to risk their neck to help them. Meanwhile, the local United Nations forces are so stymied by their own bureaucratic rules and regulations that they sometimes act in opposition to the very people they are there to try to help.
Benicio Del Toro is terrific as Mambru, a veteran international aid worker from Puerto Rico. It's hard not to be reminded of his more menacing turn in Sicario as he travels in a small motorcade through hostile territory where violence can erupt at any turn, though he's playing a much more light and romantic performance here. Tim Robbins (Welcome to Me) gives one of his more appealing performances in some time as B, serving as more of the semi-wiseguy comic relief role that one could easily envision a Bill Murray-type taking on. Melanie Thierry (The Zero Theorem) as Sophie, the new and naive recruit, and conflict manager Katya, played by Olga Kurylenko (The November Man), as Mambru's spurned former lover are also given more than eye candy roles (though if all aid workers were as beautiful as these two, male recruitment will certainly shoot up significantly).
What's most refreshing is the loose, in-joke quality to the piece that gives the impression that these are people with a history and natural repartee, which gives the movie an underlying humor of coping amid monotony and occasionally dire circumstances that will remind some at times of M*A*S*H and Three Kings in terms of the surreal nature of finding something to laugh at, 'gallows humor' as it were, in a tense and violent situation. Every attempt at helping the situation requires great effort, while all those efforts can be wiped away in the blink of an eye, merely a land mine in the road or a corpse in a well away from utter disaster.
An effort to recover a soccer ball for a local boy whose parents are nowhere to be found serves as a symbol of the difficulty of maintaining a sense of possession in a country ravaged by war, where the peaceful people are defenseless against those with the might and determination to take from them at will with no one to stand in their way. The dead body in the well is also its own symbol of trying to rid the area of the polluted stench of death, with efforts to eradicate it requiring the great efforts of brave people, but few truly want to stick their neck out to see actual change made. Rope is not something one uses in these parts for anything other than for hanging one's enemies, or for hoisting their flags.
Spanish director Fernando Leon de Aranoa (Mondays in the Son, Barrio), shooting mostly in English for the first time, skillfully walks the tightrope between farce and tragedy in that tricky way that allows us to laugh at its characters and their interactions while still feeling horrified at their circumstances and fearful of their specific situations. It's shot in the mountains of his native Spain, with terrific overhead aerial shots of the vehicles traversing the narrow pathways full of obstacles both natural and dropped there by warring factions who hate one another. A Perfect Day's irreverent tone is also maintained by its hard-rockin' soundtrack that includes such bands as The Ramones, Marilyn Manson, X, and Velvet Underground. Speaking of Velvet Underground, Lou Reed's "There is No Time" also gets a play, despite the fact that it lacks hi song, "Perfect Day", that inspired the film's title.
A Perfect Day, as a narrative, isn't as straightforward or tidy as some viewers will be accustomed to, but I find the lackadaisical and somewhat aimless air to be in perfect keeping with the nature of working in international aid, where common-sense solutions for assisting people in times of need are maddeningly kept out of reach. All they can do is find a way to work within the insanity without going mad themselves.
©2016 Vince Leo