"The Tour": The Absurdity of War By Eleanor Ringel Cater
Let’s begin with a tale of two cities: Montreal and Toronto. Both are well-known and admired all over the world. And both started a film festival the same year: 1976. Sitting at my desk thousands of miles away in Atlanta, covering all-things-movies, I figured they were pretty much the same event. Only Toronto would be easier because everyone spoke English. I was wrong on both counts. Almost everyone in Montreal speaks English, with that appealing non-specific accent news anchor Peter Jennings had (also Canadian) and as the decades have passed, they have evolved into very different animals. The Toronto International Film Festival slowly but surely became engulfed by Hollywood glitz. That’s not necessarily a bad thing (except for the year an Italian photographer stepped on my head to get a better shot of Johnny Depp.) However, the Montreal World Film Festival opted for the road less taken. The emphasis is not on Hollywood and stars, but on multiculturalism. This is truly a global festival with approximately 234 pictures shown over the course of 12 days, there are submissions from Russia, India, the Philippines, Turkey, Sweden, the United States, Argentina, Israel, Iran, just about anywhere you can think of.
The FIPREESCI prize chosen from 20 films went to The Tour (Tuneja) from Serbia. Written and directed by Goran Markovic, he a native of Belgrade, the movie creates a theater of the absurd out of the absurdity of war. Set in 1993, the bleak heart of the war between Bosnia and Herzegovina, The Tour is also a tribute, sometimes tongue-in-cheek, to both the passion and the idiocy of the acting life. A small but respected troupe in Belgrade is invited to do a quick tour of some of the areas nearer the front lines. Well, why not, they figure. They’ll earn a few bucks, entertain some new audiences, and help with morale. They’ll do something light-hearted, like, say, the Feydeau farce, “A Flea in Her Ear.” And so they set out on the road-trip-from hell, criss-crossing enemy lines, tripping through mine fields, trying to put on plays for a bunch of war-weary soldiers who mostly just want to see the actresses show their legs. It briefly calls to mind the Playboy Bunny Drop in Apocalypse Now. Though The Tour is hardly in the same league, there’s a similar sense of utter confusion and chaos. In the Coppola picture, Martin Sheen arrives at brightly lit, heavily bombed bridge. It’s like a nightmare Coney Island. He asks a G.I., who is in charge and gets the shell-shocked reply, “I thought you were.”
In The Tour, the actor just wants to put on a show, like Mickey and Judy. They are about as political as a bunch of gerbils, yet they seem to always be on the wrong side. “Your side is over there,” says a soldier and one of the actors sighs, “But we’ve already been over there.” Further, many of the troops recognize the actors on some level: “I watched you as Bugs Bunny on TV as a kid” or “Weren’t you the star of ‘Circus in the House?'” Yet it is their devotion to the theater that ultimately saves them. Faced with one particularly nasty situation, the ingénue recites a speech from “Iphigenia at Aulis”. It’s a long monologue about the sacrifices and obscenity of war and it echoes over thousands of to their most recent captors.
Granted, a black comedy about war is hardly an original theme. Think of How I Won the War, The Charge of the Light Brigade, M.A.S.H., Oh, What a Lovely War, works by Chaplin and Keaton and so many others. In the blacker-than-black early ’60s movie, The Victors, a deserter is executed while Bing Crosby croons “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” on the camp’s loud speaker. There are unforgettable juxtapositions like that in The Tour as well. When his firsts tries to persuade his fellow thespians this tour is a fine idea, the organizer points out they’ll get lots of money because the Army is filthy rich. Where do they get it, orders another? “From looting” comes the reply. Of course. As always. And the Montreal World Film Festival continues to make good omits promise of many, many films from many places. Of course.