THE LOAD (TERET) (Ognjen Glavonić, 2018)
Film Society of Lincoln Center, Francesca Beale Theater
Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center
144 West 65th St. between Broadway & Amsterdam Aves.
Opens Friday, August 30
Eight years in the making, Ognjen Glavonić’s narrative feature debut, The Load, is a tense, gripping drama set amid the NATO bombings during the Kosovo war in Yugoslavia in 1999. After the factory where he worked closes down, Vlada Stefanovic (Leon Lučev) takes a job driving a truck from the countryside to Belgrade. The mission is reminiscent of the ones in Henri-Georges Clouzot’s The Wages of Fear and William Friedkin’s underrated remake, Sorcerer, except in those films, the drivers, played by Yves Montand and Roy Scheider, respectively, knew they were transporting dangerous cargoes of nitroglycerin and dynamite. Not only won’t his facilitators tell Vlada what’s in the back of the truck, but it’s padlocked so he can’t look inside. He just has to follow two very basic rules: “Once you start driving, there’s no stopping” and “Avoid traffic and don’t attract attention.”
The film, inspired by real events that Glavonić documented in 2016’s Depth Two, opens with a dark, beautiful shot of a vast mountain landscape, bombs going off in the distance while a van slowly moves down a winding path. Vlada is first shown from outside the vehicle, his head leaning against the window, a forest and a burning house reflected in the glass; he appears to be trapped inside, resigned to his fate. This is not the life he has chosen, risking everything so he can bring home money to his wife and son. For much of the movie, he is in the claustrophobic cab of his truck or in corners of small rooms, as if there is no way out. He reluctantly picks up a young hitchhiker, Paja (Pavle Čemerikić), who says he knows the way to Belgrade, avoiding roads and bridges that have been bombed.
Glavonić occasionally strays from the central narrative, temporarily following the stories of minor, peripheral characters — the director has said that he structured the film like a tree, with many branches representing various aspects of everyday life at that harsh time — but he always returns to Vlada, the tree’s trunk, who smokes cigarette after cigarette, using his father’s lighter, an engraved memento from the 1943 Battle of Sutjeska. He doesn’t say much, rarely smiles, just forges ahead. When he walks into the middle of a party, the first words sung by the band are “like a wounded bird”; he is a victim of war, collateral damage. “Take me away from here,” the song continues, but there is nowhere to go but to his mysterious destination.
A coproduction of Serbia, Croatia, France, Qatar, and Iran, The Load is a masterpiece of suspense, a caustic thriller gorgeously photographed by Tatjana Krstevski, often with a roaming, off-balance handheld camera, with subtly immersive sound design by Jakov Munižaba, making it feel like you’re on the road with Vlada, seeing and hearing what he’s experiencing. Croatian actor Lučev (Silent Sonata, I Can Barely Remember the Day) is magnetic as Vlada, a kind of everyman caught up in a terrible situation that he can do nothing about. The Load opens August 30 at Lincoln Center, with Krstevski and producer Stefan Ivančić introducing the 7:15 screening that night; Ivančić will also introduce the 5:00 show on August 31.