"Buick Riviera": Fallout From A Chance Encounter By Mike Goodridge

in 12nd Sarajevo Film Festival

by Mike Goodridge

The simmering enmities of the Balkan conflict rise urgently back to the surface in the most unlikely of locations in Goran Rusinovic’s Buick Riviera. Shot on the wintry highways and suburbs of North Dakota, the film is a spare, articulate portrait of the still violent tensions between Bosniak and Serb, made all the more effective by its setting as remote from the Balkans as could be imagined.

If the plot hinges on the fallout from a chance encounter, Rusinovic and his actors effectively avoid any issues of believability by approaching the material with a layer of theatrical contrivance. Adapted from a novel by Sarajevo-born Miljenko Jergovic, the film could have been a play and indeed is not too far from Anthony Shaffer’s Sleuth. Like Sleuth, it requires strong central performances and Rusinovic gets just that from Slavko Stimec and Leon Lucev, who shared the best actor prize in the main competiton at Sarajevo this year.

Stimec plays a preoccupied and jobless Bosnian man called Hasan who wanders aimlessly through the desolate Midwestern landscapes in his beloved Buick Riviera, a symbol to him of the freedom from conflict which the USA has furnished.

So fierce is his loyalty to his vehicle that his marriage to his wife, a local cop (played by Aime Klein), is under strain and the film starts as she exasperatedly pleads with him not to get into the car one morning on return from her nightshift.

While on his way to pick her up from work one morning, he runs the car off the road into a snowdrift and flags down an SUV driven by a brash Serbian man called Vuko (Leon Lucev). Immediately befriending him as a comrade from the old country, Vuko offers to drive him into town but his casual references to Hasan’s Muslim ethnicity and the specific nature he attributes to it (“the trouble with you Muslims…”) awake in Hasan feelings of rage. He quickly gets out of the SUV and parts ways with the Serb.

But Hasan has left his wallet in his Buick and, when a piqued Vuko goes back to the Buick to explore it, he finds the wallet and tracks Vuko down at his house. There, around the dinner table and in front of Hasan’s wife, the two men engage in a psychological battle over the Buick, with Vuko offering to pay many thousands of dollars to take it off Hasan’s hands and Hasan clinging onto it as his symbol of dignity and freedom from Serbian prejudice.

Both men emigrated to the US in the 1990s before the conflict, but a series of surreal flashbacks reveal that Hasan’s parents have been killed in their house in Bosnia.

That Hasan is unable to escape the effects of the conflict so many years later and so many thousands of miles away is one of the film’s most potent elements. As played with a quiet anxiety by Stimec, the character is still devoured by the horrors which have been inflicted on his race and his family.

Perhaps even more persuasive is the charismatic Lucev, a strikingly handsome actor who imbues Vuko with a swaggering machismo and bullying bravado that is at once both attractive and repellent. Lucev’s immediate reference to the national and ethnic differences between the two men is a grab for racial superiority. But ultimately his instincts are those of a primitive male who will go to any lengths to overpower and belittle his fellow man.

The darkly comic twist in the film’s tail in which Hasan scores his revenge may not be politically correct but it offers an appropriate redemption for a character who can now perhaps finally move on with his new life and succumb to his wife’s pleas to start a family.

What’s surprising about Buick Riviera is how such a simple story so powerfully illustrates the bruising scars of the conflict without resorting to traditional images of war or violence.

Hasan tells Lucev that he has not returned to Bosnia since the early 1990s, so the flashbacks either represent his imaginings of his parents’ demise or show a real trip which he took to discover their fate. In either case, these flashbacks are not even necessary. Stimec’s ravaged visage is enough to convey the devastation wrought on him and countless others like him touched by genocide.

The film falters somewhat in its use of the English language: the dialogue between Klein and the two men, and between Klein and Stimec, is stilted and unconvincing. Klein is the weak link here, lacking subtlety as the whiny wife and unable to establish a married rapport with Stimec. The fact that Rusinovic was working in a language not his first could be a contributor to the stymied nature of some of these scenes.

He displays visual panache, however, in beguiling images of the Buick as it drives its solitary journey through desolate wastelands as if searching for the resolution to the conflict raging in Hasan’s soul.