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Ognjen Glavonič, Teret (The Load), 2018, DCP, color, sound, 98 minutes. Leon Lučev as Vlada.

THE SERBIAN WRITER AND DIRECTOR Ognjen Glavonić introduces Vlada (Leon Lučev), the terse, determined protagonist of Teret (The Load), in a rare moment of inattentiveness, dozing off in the back seat of a van meandering across the Balkan countryside. Flames dotting the road and reflecting off the vehicle’s window catch Vlada’s momentary attention but barely rouse him from his slumber. As an intertitle indicates, the setting, now an accustomed daily reality for the characters on-screen, is wartime: the former Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, 1999, when Serbian state forces and Kosovo-Albanian separatists were locked in a conflict exacerbated by NATO’s months-long bombing campaign. Glavonić, in his first fiction feature, gestures at this larger context but largely filters it through the solitary Vlada, who—with his worn jeans, teddy-bear beard, and cigarettes tucked always at the ready in his shirt pocket—makes a sturdily convincing keep-your-head-down everyman. Glavonić’s focus on the individual and his related dismissal of history-lesson exposition turn The Load into an unusually introspective political thriller, one where the historical backdrop is etched with minimal fuss and the thrills are pitched at the volume of a truck’s muffled but unflagging hum.

A one-time aviation factory worker whose job was affected by the bombings, Vlada presently scrapes together an income as a trucker hauling cargo for shady state forces. He remains in the dark about what exactly he’s moving—“There’s no stopping,” a regime-aligned boss instructs drivers; also, “Don’t attract any attention”—but there’s cash at the end, and Vlada has a family to support. The excursion that occupies him throughout most of The Load takes him from Kosovo to Belgrade and is, he explains, his third such driving assignment for the state. He has certain things down to a T, such as the beelines he makes here and there to put in phone calls back home to check in with his wife (Tamara Krcunović). He also exhibits an almost demure sense of professional courtesy: When he gets in the truck for his latest job and sees stray items left behind on the dashboard, he quickly places them in a plastic bag to later be delivered to his supervisors. Shortly after Vlada starts his newest route, however, he encounters an obstacle: The bridge he intended to take is obstructed by a pair of burning cars. From this point, The Load alternates between subtly suspenseful driving sequences—cruisers in the rearview mirror, unnerving sounds emanating from the trailer—and off-road detours that fleetingly distract Vlada from his Belgrade destination, which he is supposed to reach by 9 PM.

Glavonić’s previous film, the documentary Depth Two (2016), accounts for some of the reasons why he has elected, successfully, to leave so much unspoken in The Load. Arising from years of research for this latest film, Depth Two plumbs the barbarous details of the cruelties ordinary citizens suffered during the Kosovo War. It opens with gravelly narration from a man who relates a story about a truck being spotted in a river; he goes on to tell of the dozens of dead bodies discovered in the submerged vehicle, and of the cover-up that followed. The story continues for something like seventeen minutes, the recollections coming in at an unhurried clip, matched with mostly unpeopled present-day shots of this and other crime scenes. A movie of voices and landscapes, with hardly a human face to be found, Depth Two presents its horrific audio testimony—about families under siege, about mass graves—always in partnership with Glavonić and DP Tatjana Krstevski’s barren exterior vistas. Like The Load, also shot in a muted palette by Krstevski, it imparts an eerie force and displays the control of information, the careful steering of pace, of a well-wrought thriller. But the movies’ opposing forms make them exquisitely calibrated mirror images of each other—Depth Two is guided by a mosaic of sounds and evidence, and The Load by a single quiet man and his struggle over things left unsaid.

Ognjen Glavonič, Teret (The Load), 2018, DCP, color, sound, 98 minutes. Pavle Čemerikić as Paja.

While Vlada’s mission from behind the wheel is stumped by physical roadblocks, he also faces a more internal, and persistent, push-pull between different generations. Not long into his drive, he attracts a hitchhiker, Paja (Pavle Čemerikić), an eighteen-year-old Germany-bound musician who secures a ride by overstating his navigational knowledge. At first not on speaking terms—Vlada is annoyed at the sudden company and nervous about the quest at hand—the two men soon let their guard down. Paja plays a tape of his old band’s music, and Vlada enjoys it. Paja also shares sandwiches, a kindness that opens up Vlada’s own thoughts and longings. In The Load’s concluding chapter, Vlada returns home and confronts his difficulties communicating with his sullen adolescent son.

Glavonić, born in Pančevo in 1985, was just a teenager himself at the time of the bombings, which perhaps explains why a movie about a soft-spoken middle-aged truck driver can somehow seem, in the end, to be about youth. This has been a recurring element in Glavonić’s work to date. Two of his shorts, Rhythm Guitar, Back Vocals, 2010, and Made of Ashes, 2012, tell tales of young love—the latter, like The Load, tangling together personal dilemmas with weighty historical context. Glavonić’s funniest movie—an hour-long on-the-fly doc called Zivan Makes a Punk Festival (2014)—sweetly evokes an air of youthful folly, centering on an overwhelmed but earnest man trying to piece together the logistics of a passion-project music festival within a matter of days. The Load is, of course, comparatively grim, and its most emotionally taxing scene—showing Vlada, after he completes his cargo drop-off, hosing down the truck and then vomiting from the stench of the cleanup—is excruciating, as the camera closes in on the sludge dripping down from vehicle’s interior and falling to the ground. But the way Glavonić rounds out the gruesome plot, with ruminations on fatherhood and music and digressive scenes of kids goofing around and setting things on fire, produces a fullness of feeling and tone that surpasses one-note wartime dread.

The Load opens at Film at Lincoln Center in New York on August 30.

 

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