Boys like to play soldiers, whether with toy guns or gaming consoles, and because of that it is easy even for certain adults to see war as some kind of Boy’s Own Adventure. The reality is, however, quite different and much darker, especially in situations when children actually have to be real soldiers. This truth was accepted even by cinema of Communist Yugoslavia, at least judging by Boško Buha, 1978 biopic directed by Branko Bauer, arguably one of the saddest Partisan films ever made.
The film is dedicated to Boško Buha, a teenager from village of Gradina in today’s Croatia whose exploits as crack Partisan during Second World War made him into one of the former country’s greatest heroes and icons of popular culture. Plot begins during winter of 1941/42 when Partisan forces, after launching uprising against Axis occupation in Serbia, are forced to retreat to mountainous and more guerilla-friendly areas on the border of today’s Montenegro and Bosnia-Herzegovina. Among them are large number of children and teenagers tagging along and Partisan commanders at first try to send them back to their families, but soon discover that some, like Boško Buha (played by Ivan Kojundžić), simply don’t have any family or home to return to. Reluctantly, they decide to keep them and even give them arms, but Puškar (played by Marko Nikolić), one of Partisan company commanders, is given specific task to keep them out of trouble. Circumstances conspire against this plan and during Partisan attack on enemy garrison boys actually take part in combat. Soon it turns out that Buha and his comrades, partly due to their short stature, possess great talent for sneaking towards enemy positions and neutralising bunkers with hand grenades. Buha takes part in many battles, his unit gets nickname "Partisan Artillery" and Buha himself get personally commended by Partisan leader Tito and becomes some sort of mini-celebrity. But fate, like for so many of his comrades, is unkind and he won’t live to see the end of war.
Croatian film maker Branko Bauer looked like the best possible choice for making this film, mainly because some of his best works had dealt with children, and some – like 1957 classic drama Don’t Look Back, My Son and popular 1976 television series Salaš u Malom Ritu - dealt with children caught in Second World War. In this particular case, Bauer had to walk the fine line between celebrating the protagonist as hero and martyr according to official ideology and his, more personal, views on war as nothing short of terrible tragedy that deprived a generation of happy childhood and youthful innocence. This approach is best seen in the way young Croatian actor Ivan Kojundžić (often mistaken with Slavko Štimac, star of Salaš u Malom Ritu, due to physical resemblance) plays Buha – he is brave and competent soldier, but he is at the same time immature, makes pranks and gets into fights. All that happens while he is, like his friends and adult superiors, under constant threat of hunger, disease and technologically superior enemy. The only moments of normalcy happens in scenes that take place in Bosnian town liberated by Partisans where Buha has first romantic experiences with local girl and even sees glimpses of peacetime world by visiting cinema run by photographer (brilliantly played by Sabrija Biser). This character also allows the film to present certain complexities of wartime situation in scene where Buha gets infuriated after learning that he had provided services to Germans and their collaborators. Bauer in that scene and many other ultimately opts for the sake of humanity and condemnation of violence. Bauer also, according to his own words, refused to shoot any scene in which Buha or any of his young comrades directly kill anyone.
Boško Buha manages to walk the fine line between hagiography and realistic war drama, but it is far from perfect film. Main problem is episodic nature, which at times makes plot and certain characters confusing and almost incomprehensible to viewers who aren’t familiar with Second World War in Yugoslavia. To those who are familiar with subject, Boško Buha looks, despite its ideological limitations, as rather accurate depiction of Buha and other young Partisans’ lives. This is not surprising considering that one of film’s co-writers – Boško Matić – was Buha’s comrade and child soldier himself. Bauer, however, is unable to prevent the film from occasionally drifting in overt sentimentality, and this is especially evident in scene depicting Buha’s death, which is followed by scene featuring smiling Buha and his friends parading in slow motion accompanied by song "Nek se sete" performed by Oliver Dragojević. On the other hand, Boško Buha features some fine acting – both by adult actors like Marko Nikolić and Milena Dapčević (who plays character based on Saša Božović, female doctor, famous post-war author and witness of Buha’s death) and by child actor. Among the latter Dragan Bjelogrić, who debuted in the role of Buha’s friend Sirogojno, is best known and later became one of the greatest stars of Serbian cinema.
Boško Buha is not among the best known and definitely not among the more popular Partisan films. The latter can be explained by the events that happened later and made its content seen in different light. All deaths, suffering and sacrifices made by the young protagonists became futile when another war erupted in this part of the world half a century later. A conflict that would, among other things, bring members of Buha’s family on the different sides and some of them became its casualties. Lessons that Bauer tried to make apparently weren’t learned but we can still hope that the next generations will be little bit wiser.
RATING: 7/10 (++)
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