There are very few instances in my life where I’ve felt overwhelmingly stupid while watching a motion picture. Not because I think of myself as some sort of worldly savant, mind you, but because most movies simply do not require much brain power on part of the audience. Slovenian director Vinko Moderndorder’s strikingly intelligent 2008 thriller “Landscape No. 2” (aka “Pokrajina St. 2”), in addition to making me feel both uncultured and pathetically ignorant, completely discredited my snobbery, and indirectly suggested that I spend more time reading books than staring blankly at my television screen.
It’s not that the film is ridiculously hard-to-follow, or that its IQ is so astronomical that my tiny mind had great difficulty wrapping itself around the concept. What it proved, I’m sorry to say, is that I’m an insolated, culturally-inept American who is painfully unaware of the historical gravity of anything beyond my country’s borders. Truth be told, I knew next to nothing about Slovenia, its people, or its role during World War 2. However, your complete and thorough enjoyment of “Landscape No. 2” doesn’t require a working knowledge of the country’s history, but it does help fill in a few narrative gaps.
At its core, the film is a simple “heist gone awry” yarn, complete with hardcore assassins, elderly, megalomaniacal generals, and a few unexpected twists and turns. The historical aspect of the picture is minimal, and, in the grand scheme of things, doesn’t really matter. That said, being somewhat familiar with Slovenia and its people will help you appreciate the picture’s many quirks and ticks. It also adds weight to certain aspects of the story, namely the significance of the film’s titular painting and the mysterious documents that are of great importance to several characters.
Using the discovery of a mass World War II-era grave as a backdrop, “Landscape No. 2” follows the illegal misadventures of two low-budget thieves, Sergej (Marko Mandic) and Polde (Janez Hocevar), and their quest to extort money from a elderly war criminal. During their quest to retrieve the painting, Sergej, against his friend’s sagely advice, removes several valuable items from a hidden wall safe, including a set of papers that contain secrets the general is willing to kill to keep from the public eye. In order to assure that his plans are carried out, he enlists the services of an intimidating gentlemen who has absolutely no qualms about getting his hands very, very dirty.
Frequently I was reminded of the Joel and Ethan Coen’s “No Country for Old Men,” a picture that shares many similarities with Moderndorder’s extremely unconventional crime drama. The lines dividing the “good guys” from the “bad guys” are blurred to the point of non-existence. Sergej, the picture’s central character, is a shady, womanizing jerk who, ultimately, contributes an abundance of sadness to those he shares his life with. By the end of the film, you can’t wait for the guy to learn his lesson, especially once things take a violent turn for the worse towards the tail end of the feature. His negative traits greatly outweigh the positive, and I seriously doubt many will have any sympathy for his plight whatsoever.
Moderndorder handles the story and its bevy of fallible characters with expect precision. The film sways from sexy, light-hearted humor (the grocery story tryst) to graphically-violent action (Magda’s encounter with the aforementioned assassin) with relative ease, blending together elements from different genres in such an incredible way that the film almost defies classification. However, the story might be a little slow for some, as most of the action is confined to the last half-hour or so. Until then, you’re forced to follow Sergej as he fumbles through his day-to-day life, which is, admittedly, a little dull at times.
“Landscape No. 2” is a quietly captivating thriller, one that rightfully deserves the Oscar buzz it’s currently generating. The performances are weighty, Vinko Moderndorfer’s direction is sharp and colorful, and, above all else, it requires a bit of intelligence from its audience. The slow, often plodding pacing may distract some, though the picture’s “slow burn” style actually works in its favor. What’s more, it’s made me stand up and pay attention to an era I’m woefully ignorant of. Finding a movie that encourages you to pick up a book and use your brain is a rare commodity, indeed. I honestly can’t recommend it enough.
Vinko Moderndorfer (director) / Vinko Moderndorfer (screenplay)
CAST: Marko Mandic … Sergej
Janez Hocevar … Polde
Barbara Cerar … Magda
Maja Martina Merljak … Jasna
Jaka Lah .. Damjan
Janez Skof … General
Slobodan Custic … Instructor