A Film a Week - May Labour Day / Praznik rada

 previously published on Cineuropa

Back in the early 2000s, Pjer Žalica was probably the hottest and most bankable filmmaker from Bosnia and Herzegovina thanks to his first two features, Fuse (2003) and Days and Hours (2004). After this promising start, his career started to show signs of ups and downs, with some documentary passion projects, productions that fell through, an adaptation of a stage play into a script for Elmir Jukić’s film The Frog and a piece of filmed theatre, Focus, Grandma!, which opened the 2020 (pandemic) edition of the Sarajevo Film Festival. The festival still holds Žalica in high regard, placing the premiere of his newest effort, May Labour Day, in the closing-film slot, meaning that it played simultaneously in multiple open-air venues at Sarajevo.

The title comes from the International Workers’ Day holiday, the celebration of which was introduced in Yugoslavia in communist times. The tradition of celebrating the holiday in large groups with vast quantities of food has continued in all of the former federal republics, now independent states. And the ensemble of middle-aged and elderly friends at the centre of Žalica’s film is no exception to that rule.

However, the plans of Numo (Admir Glamočak), Mujke (Aleksandar Seksan), Žuna (Emir Hadžihafizbegović), Cijo (Ermin Bravo), their former neighbour Savo (Boris Isaković), now visiting from Canada, and to a lesser extent their wives are interrupted when their neighbour, friend and war comrade Fudo gets arrested by the special forces on war-crime charges. The situation gets even more complicated when Fudo’s unassuming son Armin (Muhamed Hadžović) comes for an unannounced visit, also bringing his pregnant wife, Diba (Labina Mitevska), insisting that he has to do his own investigation in order to clear his father’s name before it is too late. As the alcohol flows and the conversations get more and more heated, old wounds and resentment from the war in the early 1990s resurface, threatening to ruin not only the celebration, but also their friendship and communal spirit.

Žalica’s script falls into the trap of inflating the characters and the relations between them, which makes it more suitable for a stage play than for cinema, and his directing is not overly innovative either. The filmmaker makes good use of the slick cinematography by Almir Đikoli and the acting abilities of his cast of Bosnian and ex-Yugoslav A-listers, leaving them enough space for some theatrics and bravado without ruining the sense of continuity or realism in their performances, but he also uses clichéd tricks such as steering the viewers’ emotions through Dino Šukalo’s score. But the biggest issue is probably the fact that Žalica serves as his own editor, so any chance of cutting corners to make the film a bit leaner and more propulsive was sacrificed in order for the filmmaker to keep full control.

If Žalica’s only intention were to point out that this war from 30 years ago still dictates the lives of people in Bosnia and Herzegovina, one could call May Labour Day a success. The trouble is that Žalica does not bring anything particularly new to the table, since this is common knowledge both in the country and abroad. If it had come some 15 years earlier, the film would have been a good companion piece to the filmmaker’s early works, but nowadays, it seems fairly anachronistic, in terms of both its topic and its execution.

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