It is very difficult to understand why a film such as this has received such scant distribution in Australia, currently playing on just one screen in Brisbane despite a top notch cast in a story that remains highly relevant at a time when people continue to suffer as a result of ongoing conflicts that rage in various parts of the world. In this instance, the locale is ‘somewhere in the Balkans’ as a small group of NGO-affiliated aid workers attempt to lend assistance to those in need in the aftermath of the Bosnian war. Unfortunately, their efforts are hamstrung as much by the bureaucracy within which they are entrenched as any obstacles they encounter in the field. Directed by Fernando de León de Aranoa, A Perfect Day explores the grisly day-to-day absurdities that these crews encounter, the film’s title a sarcastic refrain uttered by Aid Across Borders newcomer Sophie (Melanie Thierry) when the team find their every effort thwarted.
The film opens with a visually arresting scene of a dead body being winched out of a well, the rotting corpse having been dumped by parties unknown in an effort to contaminate the water supply. When the rope snaps, the body plunges back into the water and the aid workers – Mambru (Benicio del Toro), B (Tim Robbins), Sophie and their interpreter Damir (Fedja Stukan), set out to find more rope to try again. The rest of the film is this expedition, a seemingly simple mission that turns out to be anything but, delivering a comprehensive portrait of life in a war zone for the residents and those trying to help them. Mambru is the pragmatic yet compassionate group leader supposedly on his last tour, while fellow veteran B is a joker whose wise-cracking bravado masks a commitment to a cause that has cost him any semblance of a normal life. Along the way, they pick up young Nikola (Eldar Residovic), a local kid being harassed by a group of older boys, and they are also joined by Katya (Olga Kurylenko), a representative of their organisation charged with evaluating the (cost) effectiveness of their work in the region.
This is a movie not so much about war itself, but more specifically about the significant impact it has on those who live in those regions. From the deserted towns littered with debris from bombed and burnt-out houses, to the long journey required each day to procure water – not to mention the racketeers using the contaminated well to their advantaged by selling fresh water at highly inflated prices – A Perfect Day examines the hardships that linger long after the shooting stops. Whilst the film never aims to lay blame with regard to the conflict itself, it certainly takes aim at the likes of the United Nations and the way in which the agreements they reach often make things harder for those trying to help and only serve to inflict further hardship on those desperately in need of assistance.
The cast are all terrific, with del Toro (Traffic, Sicario, 21 Grams) perfectly cast as a group leader who has given up trying to make sense of things and is resigned to the absurdities that complicate his efforts. As B, Robbins delivers one of his most enjoyable performances for quite a while, perhaps his best since the likes of The Player, The Shawshank Redeption or his Oscar-winning turn in Mystic River. Kurylenko (Quantum of Solace) is very effective as the officious bureaucrat whose romantic history with Mambru brings additional complexity to the group dynamic, while Thierry, Stukan and first timer Residovic are also pitch perfect. Sweeping overhead shots capture the landscape in all its barren glory, with a ripping soundtrack featuring the likes of Lou Reed and Pete Shelley proving the ideal aural accompaniment to the work of cinematographer Alex Catalán. Whilst de Aranoa might be largely unknown in Australia, there is much to like about A Perfect Day, so here’s hoping that it will secure a wider release to enable more people to see it on the big screen.