A PERFECT DAY (2015) review
written by: Fernando León de Aranoa
produced by: Luis Fernández Lago
directed by: Fernando León de Aranoa
rating: R (for language including some sexual references)
runtime: 106 min.
U.S. release date: October 25, 2015 (Chicago International Film Festival), January 15, 2016 (limited), January 22-28, 2016 (Gene Siskel Film Center, Chicago, IL) and avail. on iTunes, Amazon and VOD
You don’t see too many movies about humanitarian aid workers, therefore “A Perfect Day” comes across as a bit of a surprise. Even more of a surprise is the film’s tone, which harkens back to the antiwar comedies of Mike Nichols’ “Catch 22” and Robert Altman’s “MASH” and reminds us that comedy is often used to balance the heavy weight that can be felt during and after war. This English-language debut from Spanish writer/director Fernando León de Aranoa premiered at Cannes last year and made its way last fall to the Chicago International Film Festival, but I missed it. Now, the film is receiving a limited release in theaters with the draw likely to be seeing two Oscar-winning actors working alongside each other.
The movie takes place “somewhere in the Balkan mountains” in 1995, after the Bosnian conflict where we find a small team of international Aid Without Borders (on obvious riff on Doctors Without Borders) workers ensuring that villagers have a clean water supply available to them. We see the film’s main challenge in the this during the opening scene where we find Mambru (Benicio del Toro), the leader, working with his team to try to hoist an obese corpse out of a well with a rope. The rope breaks and the body kerplunks to the bottom and that’s where we get the film’s central plot, involving this team of aid workers trying to get their hands on a rope they can use to remove the body, so they can sanitize this water source.
As Sophie (Mélanie Thierry) and her seasoned colleagues Mambru and B (Tim Robbins) race against time to save the water supply for an abandoned community, they must outwit pedantic UN bureaucrats, military factions and exploitative local criminals – all the while cleverly distracting Mambru’s ex-lover Katya (Olga Kurylenko), who has flown in from the head office to evaluate mission and determine whether or not it should be shut down. A dead cow, an un-cooperative supplies store clerk and an angry dog tied to the length of rope they desperately need: the team and their translator, Damir (Fedja Stukan), negotiate the seemingly simple task of extracting a dead body from a well, but staying sane proves to be the biggest challenge on this not-so perfect day.
The director’s screenplay is an adaptation of a novel by Paula Farias (who spent five years as the president of Doctors Without Borders in Spain, where this movie is filmed) and the title, “A Perfect Day”, is obviously ironic. The thread throughout the film, involving the search for a rope provides an opportunity to show how the indigenous people of the area live in a world where war has ended (at least for most) and also offers a chance to inject deliberate humor as a way to lighten the mood and give the cast the chance to add dimension to their characters. The irony in the title refers to the various roadblocks and rejections the workers run into at just about every turn, but it’s how they respond to them that make these characters – and the film as a whole – much more interesting than one would think going in.
“A Perfect Day” offers a look at how these aid workers (and maybe aid workers in general) manage to work with lingering tension at every turn. That’s literally speaking – since it is revisited throughout the storyline that land mines could be along any road – which is why locals travel off-road, following the cows that they herd, something B astutely acknowledges. Land mines are just one of the devices used here – subtly or not so subtly – to convey the hazards of working in a war-ravaged land. How the veteran aid workers (portrayed with charisma by del Toro and Robbins, who both of whom truly make the movie ) handle it all make “A Perfect Day” a less predictable watch than one would expect. Neither of the two actors are given jaded or cynical characters to work with, just weary and wise souls, who are patient with newer, more idealistic workers like Sophie and a local bullied boy named Nikola, who doesn’t know he’s been recently orphaned.
“A Perfect Day” shows how aid workers are often tangled in the red tape passed on from those they’re employed by and the locals that want nothing to do with their presence. We follow them, whether or not they get the help they need and discover some humorous and horrific situations they get themselves into. One example is when Nikola takes the group back to his debilitated home, knowing where to find a rope – unfortunately, that long rope happens to be used as a leash tied to a vicious canine. As Mambru and Sophie look for other rope options around the boy’s house, while B tries to sedate the dog, they discover what happened to Nikola’s parents. This sequence is a good example of what “A Perfect Day” has to offer in terms of comedy and tragedy and how León de Aranoa smoothly balances both.
As much as León de Aranoa injects his film with cranked-up tunes by the likes of The Ramones and Marilyn Manson, the gravity of the environment is never far. In fact, “A Perfect Day” serves as a reminder of how comedy and rock n’ roll can often be an antidote to utter despair. That may not be entirely original, but it is a reminder and one that is part of an engaging and entertaining picture that has a few things to say about the precarious environment of volunteerism.