by Niles Schwartz
When Day Breaks, directed by Goran Paskaljevic, is a drama with the best intentions. Serbia’s entry for last year’s Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, it hunkers the viewer down with the weight of history, as documentary footage unspools the Belgrade Fair Grounds opening in 1937, adorned with ominous Nazi flags. The prologue migrates to November, 2011, as Professor Misa Brankov (Mustafa Nadarevic), a conductor and music teacher, bids his choir goodbye, passing on his torch to a new generation. He’s comfortably aging, teaching some gypsy children on the side, thinking about his own son and trying to nestle comfortably with the fact that the newer generation isn’t as mindful of history. But Misa then receives some shocking news. A box is found at those old fairgrounds, and it turns out Misa is Jewish, his parents giving him to the Brankov family before their detainment in the concentration camp that was being erected. The news takes Misa to a Jewish history museum, and he examines the mysterious box his parents, the Weiss family, left for him before their execution. Inside is a letter, a photograph, and some unfinished sheet music his father was writing — a piece entitled “When Day Breaks.” Suddenly the retired old man has a new purpose. To find out who his parents were and to personally finish his father’s composition.
It sounds sweet, I know. But this story, where we’re informed that music is supposed to mean so much more than words, verbalizes its sentiments much too often and with so much uncomfortable concreteness from beginning to end, its pull to move me could never be effective. Immediately Misa goes out on his journey of self (re)discovery, and the emotional beats are already played too heavily; the picture can’t reach any sort of crescendo — day never “breaks” I guess you’d say — and this adventure into a Serbian’s past remains a dull straight line, which is kind of hard for a know-nothing critic to say of such a meagre little movie trying so hard, with Nadarevic’s childlike eyes searching so deeply and sincerely, but the withering act of When Day Breaks pathetically dips and makes me pity the hero for the wrong reasons. There’s the motif of crying babies throughout the film, and I kind of see the aging professor as the last baby, who’s unfortunately too proud to cry at the conclusion.
As Professor Misa investigates old neighborhoods close to the concentration camp and fairgrounds, the film makes earnest attempts to tie in his questions with the unrest caused by the region’s turbulent recent period of the 1990s. Misa’s star singer (Zafir Hadzimanov) had a son who was killed on the front lines; since then, the singer’s lost his talent and drowned himself in alcohol. Misa’s own son, Malisa (Nebojsa Glogovac), is succeeding as a conductor in his own right, but has no time to lend his orchestra for a charitable reason — or even the time to talk to good old dad for five minutes. Elsewhere, Misa’s successor at the school (Nada Sargin) can’t help him out, as New Year’s festivities are more important than paying tribute to the past the professor’s just discovered. The new generation just doesn’t care, which — as Don Tommasino in The Godfather ironically reminded us — is how the younger generations have been for basically thousands of years, but jeez, it feels good to complain about their lack of respect, doesn’t it?
Meanwhile, Misa gets to pettily vent his feelings with his poor, farmer brother Moska (Rade Kojadinovic), asking, “Why didn’t you tell me I was adopted?” “But you were always my brother,” Moska responds, which you’d think would be enough, considering the whole awkward affair. Still the professor whines, finally swallowing his pride and asking both his adoptive and biological parents’ forgiveness in a cemetery. Moving through graffiti soaked, economically depressed neighborhoods with hysterical residents, the film only gets more heavy handed, playing like a stiff memorial. Sequences of celebration (a wedding) and turmoil (an explosion) are feeble defenses against the picture’s zombie Hallmark Card lifelessness.
Misa grows more desperate, pawning cherished objects (objects this lonely old man considers “family”) to pay for musicians to play a special concentration camp commemoration, where the completed “When Day Breaks” shall be performed. Someone says to him of Serbia’s history, during World War II and the 1990s, “I don’t know if mankind has learnt anything from these horrors,” and the reply is, “Human experience doesn’t mean anything.” That’s true enough, certainly, and the gulf between the present moment and the unpunished crimes of the past is always a theme worthy of meditation and repetition. But the how is much more important than the what, and while watching When Day Breaks, I realized how much better this film would play if it were a wicked, melancholic, scorching satire instead of a bland, saccharine drama. Its heart is in the right place, but everything else is demanding to be put out of its misery.
When Day Breaks plays at the St. Anthony Main Tuesday, April 16, 5:15 p.m., and Sunday, April 21, at 11:15 a.m. For more information, go to mspfilmfest.org.