Judge Brendan Babish finds "House of the Rising Sun" far more appropriate for presidential visits than that tired, old "Star-Spangled Banner."
"Are you a terrorist?"
"I may be an asshole, but terrorist…no."
In 1991, Yugoslavia began breaking up. Though the republics of Croatia and Slovenia were able to leave the Federation without reprisal, when Bosnia and Herzegovina declared independence in 1992, war quickly broke out. Serbia, which dominated the government of the former Yugoslavia, began sending troops and weapons into Bosnia, where local Bosnian-Serbs fought with them to take back the fledgling country. The four-year war left somewhere between 100,000-110,000 dead (civilians and military) as well as more than 2 million displaced. Though Bosnia and Herzegovina would eventually gain its independence, the Serbian war crimes and atrocities left its citizens extremely bitter at their former countrymen.
Several films have emerged from this bloody conflict. The majority—including No Man's Land, the most famous—have attempted to dramatize the horrifying battle conditions. While Fuse takes place shortly after fighting has ceased, it still deals largely with the lingering tensions between Serbs and Bosnians, as well as the mourning and destruction the war had wrought. However, decidedly unlike its predecessors, Fuse is a comedy.
Facts of the Case
Fuse is the story of a small Bosnian border town trying to recover from the Balkan war, both psychologically and financially. This rebuilding effort would be greatly aided if the rumored visit by President Bill Clinton to their impoverished town comes to pass. The film follows several characters as they prepare for the president's arrival: a pair of black-market bootleggers who smuggle prostitutes into the war-torn region; a retired police chief who has become delusional since his son died in the conflict; the police chief's other son, who is a fireman and has sentry duty at the border, where he is stationed only few feet from his Serbian counterparts; and a befuddled mayor who helplessly pleads with his townspeople to behave, lest the Americans abandon their reconstruction.
Like most Americans, I had trouble following the Bosnian-Serb war in the 1990s. Of course I knew there were atrocities, and I abstractly deplored the violence, though I had little idea of what was going on and was easily confused by all the different splintering Republics. A few years ago, I read Love Thy Neighbor, a brilliant book on the subject by war reporter Peter Maas. It would take far too long to encapsulate his reporting here, but one point he made is very colorfully and humorously portrayed in Fuse. In a misguided attempt to halt the fighting, the United Nations forbade both Serbia and Bosnia to import weapons. This worked out fine for the far more industrial Serbia, which was able to produce its own weapons while the smaller, rural Bosnia was left with few resources to defend itself. In desperation, the Bosnian government turned to its organized crime syndicates, and supplied gangsters with money and high-powered bureaucratic positions in exchange for defending the country. As a result, at any international meeting between the two sides Serbia, was able to send educated, genteel diplomats while the Bosnians were represented by Tony Soprano types. As a result the Bosnians came off looking like a country of coarse thugs while the Serbs seem rational and urbane.
In Fuse, this back story is never discussed, as it would already be familiar to those living in the Balkans. However, it goes a long way in explaining how organized crime and corruption—a recurring theme in the movie—became so rampant in Bosnia. Though a sober movie could be made about the corrosive influences of these elements on a nascent government, director Pjer Zalica instead wisely chooses to focus on the absurdity of feckless politicians and ruthless bootleggers trying to resurrect a war-torn country. Of course, the introduction of American diplomats only exacerbates the small country's difficulties and leads to a highly amusing comedy of errors.
The town's governmental officials recognize support from the United States as necessary for the rebuilding of their country, and immediately try to both clamp down on all illegalities and impress their American guests. When American accountants demand to see the city's financial records, the mayor must stall while associates throw as much paperwork out the window as possible. Later, after President Clinton's visit is announced, a local seamstress sews a giant American flag, but accidentally affixes it with red stars. The local school's glee club plans to welcome the president with an a capella rendition of "House of the Rising Sun." After the mayor hears them singing this unfamiliar tune he shows mild concern, but as long as the song isn't anti-Capitalist he thinks it will be fine.
Still, like most war comedies, Fuse does not ignore the harsh realities of its subject. The pain of a man who has lost his son is unflinchingly portrayed in the mourning of the former police chief. This pain is also cleverly contrasted with the optimism of a town awaiting a visit from their (supposed) savior. However, I still had problems with some of the overly optimistic depictions of what must be dire situations. The morale of the smuggled prostitutes seems to be a little higher than what I would expect. The Serbian and Bosnian border guards reconcile their differences a little too easily. That said, the movie is a comedy, and the tone throughout manages to be light while still remaining effectively authentic to the subject matter. This is no small feat.
Ultimately, Fuse should be treasured by American audiences who have any interest in the region or its recent conflicts. It is a window into a world that is entirely foreign to most people, yet it is still full of humor and pathos that is universally understandable and effective. I highly recommend it.
Fuse is obviously a low budget film and, while the picture and sound are sharp and clear, this movie offers little in technical brilliance. There are, however, great shots of dreary Bosnian skylines that sadly resemble how one would imagine this war-torn land.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Fuse was filmed for a Balkan audience, so I'm sure very few of its viewers were distracted by the accents of the American delegation. I give the film credit for having these characters speak in their native language (American films usually have foreigners speak in English), but they speak in a thickly accented English of indeterminate European origin (my guess: Bosnian). Personally, I found this small glitch quaint, but it will surely distract some viewers.
Though war seems entirely antithetical to comedy, there is something that is so absurd about the practice of taking up arms against a stranger that it has proved—in films such as Catch-22 and Life is Beautiful—to be surprising fertile ground for humor. Fuse is a worthy addition to the cannon of war comedies.
These people have been through enough. Not guilty.
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