Danis Tanović: Circus Columbia, 2010

reviewed by Nataša Milas © 2012

circus columbiaFollowing his widely acclaimed debut film, No Man’s Land (2001), Danis Tanović ventured into foreign lands, making his second film in French, L’Enfer (2005), based on the script of Krzysztof Kieslowski, and his third film in English, Triage (2009), starring Colin Farrell. In his latest feature, Circus Columbia (2010), Danis Tanović returns to a Bosnian, or rather, Herzegovinian landscape. Circus Columbia is based on the eponymous novel by Croatian writer and journalist Ivica Đikić and it takes place in an anonymous Herzegovinian town. Even though Circus is a comedy, it is not devoid of political and historical implications. Placed in the background of the family drama, historical circumstances overarch and influence the entire plot. The temporal setting of the film is a short period when the cars in Bosnia still carried YU stickers on them, but Croatian white and red checkerboard flags had already begun to appear in local offices—1991.

The film’s main characters are Divko and Lucija, a husband and wife played by Miki Manojlović and Mira Furlan. Tanović brings back actors that the audience remembers watching in the eighties, during the time of Yugoslavia and the socialist regime. The film spans only several days during 1991, before the dissolution of the country that very year. Divko, who fled his country to avoid conscription, and even possible persecution since his parents were in the Ustasha movement, has spent the last twenty years in Germany. During this time he has had one wish—to return home!  The collapse of the communist regime provides Divko with the longed-for opportunity to go back home. Even though Divko has had his share of success in Germany, where he made his fortune, he has never found peace in this foreign land. In search of that peace he returns to Herzegovina with his young girlfriend Azra (Jelena Stupljanin), his beloved cat Bonny—who continuously brings Divko luck—and, of course, a Mercedes and plenty of cash.

circus columbiaUpon his return, Divko’s first order of business is to remove the wife he left behind, Lucija, and their son Martin (Boris Ler), from his home and set up house with Azra. At first, we are not certain about the nature of Divko and Lucija’s relationship. As the movie unfolds we learn that once Divko left for Germany he severed all ties with his wife and son. Why this is so we only learn at the very end of the film. The fact that Lucija was the child of communist parents and Divko the offspring of Ustashas proved an insurmountable obstacle. As it became imperative for Divko to flee, Lucija was asked to accompany Divko to spy on him (if he were to pursue Ustasha connections). If she were to refuse to spy, she would endanger the life of her parents who would stay behind. Lucija decided to stay, not to betray her love and keep her parents safe. Divko only learns this truth at the film’s end, and his bitterness toward his wife completely disappears, and his compassion returns.

In the opening scene of the film Martin wakes up to the sound of music coming from the radio. It is the voice of Jadranka Stojaković wondering “Što je ljubav?” (What is Love?) The pairing of the music with Martin serves two purposes: it symbolically answers the question asked in the song, i.e. Martin is a product of the love between Lucija and Divko. The song also serves as a prelude to upcoming events: Martin will experience love.

Music continues to play an important communicative role in the film. Stojaković’s music marks the generation to which Lucija and Divko belong. Both the opening and closing musical sequences by Jadranka Stojaković refer to the love between Divko and Lucija. Martin and Azra, on the other hand, flirt over Azra’s name, which is eponymous of Martin’s favorite band. Conveniently, Azra has never heard of the band and their music, which allows Martin to make a tape for Azra, an act symbolic of his infatuation with the girl.

circus columbia When Divko’s lucky cat Bonny disappears, all forces are aligned to find him. As the search for the missing cat takes place, the relationship between Martin and Azra unravels. The time they spend together searching for the missing cat provides them with the opportunity to learn more about each other. Martin learns about the history of his father’s relationship with Azra. Back in Germany, Azra ended up in the hospital after her father beat her, and there she met Divko, who cared for her afterwards.

The fathers, father figures, and their relationship with children, is an important subplot of the film. During the twenty years that Lucija has spent as a single mother, a Yugoslav army commander, Savo (Svetislav Goncić), has helped her out. There is no love affair between the two, but Savo certainly stands as a father figure for Martin. Now, when war has broken out in Dubrovnik and is just about to spread to Bosnia and Herzegovina, and thus to their small town, Savo organizes an escape for Lucija, her son, and himself to Germany.

circus columbia One crucial night things escalate. Martin, who is an amateur radio operator, notifies the commander of the Yugoslav army, Savo, about a planned attack on the Yugoslav army barracks. The angry members of the local Croatian paramilitary force who were to implement the attack arrest Martin. Lucija seeks Divko’s help, begging him to save their son, and explaining why she stayed in Herzegovina and how she never loved anyone but him. Divko, who shows little compassion throughout the movie, relents after hearing these words and does what Lucija asks of him. He saves his son, offers his Mercedes for their escape to Germany, and gives Martin money with which, as Divko notes, “one can buy everything but cannot have everything.” Divko also recognizes the love between his son and Azra and sends them all, Lucija, Savo, Martin, and Azra, on their way to freedom and safety. Divko decides to stay—as dangerous as that decision may be, this was his home. Alone, without his lucky cat, he sets off toward the amusement park of his childhood—Circus Columbia. As he approaches one of the rides, Lucija shows up with Bonny. She has also decided to stay. The two (or three) of them go for a ride accompanied by the song of Jadranka Stojaković, “Sve smo mogli mi” (We Were Capable of Anything). As the ride spins, it gives rise to their renewed love. In the background the grenades fall and the sound of music is intermixed with sounds of emerging war.

circus columbiaFor such a light-hearted comedy, the film is filled with serious historical tribulations. We have the Yugoslav army represented by Savo; we have Lucija’s Communist past of her parents; we have the Ustasha movement embodied in Divko’s past; and we have a new power, Ranko (Milan Strljić) and his son Pivac (Mario Knezović), who represent the new Croatian government; plus the TV reportage of the Fall of the Berlin wall, and war in Dubrovnik. In the midst of all this are Martin and Azra who represent the new generation devoid of any political affiliations: the two young people who came of age in these transitional times and fell in love. They are the “healthy” potential who now need to flee.

circus columbiaThe title and the central allegory of the film, Circus Columbia, serves to bring us back to the time of innocence, of love and play, and a time when one was, as Stojaković sings, “capable of anything.” As the titular circus brings forth the notion of the carnivalesque, other moments in the film do the same: the lucky black cat Bonny and the winding search for him; the cow’s head on Divko’s platter when the couple goes out for romantic dinner (paired with Azra’s insistence on vegetarianism). Circus Columbia ties down the then and the now, youth and the symbolic return to it. On another level, the absence of the actual circus is filled by the family circus that takes place in the movie, and furthermore, by the political circus of the end of Yugoslavia.

Nataša Milas


Circus Columbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, France, UK, Germany, Slovenia, Belgium, Serbia, 2010
Color, 113 min
Director: Danis Tanović
Script: Danis Tanović and Ivica Đikić
Director of Photography: Walther van den Ende
Editing: Petar Marković
Production designer: Dušan Milavec, Sanda Popovac
Music: Christoph Blaser, Steffen Kahles
Cast: Miki Manojlović, Mira Furlan, Boris Ler, Jelena Stupljanin, Mario Knezović, Svetislav Goncić, Milan Strljić, Miralem Zupčević, Izudin Bajrović
Producer: Čedomir Kolar, Amra Bakšić Čamo, Marc Baschet, Mirasad Purivatra
Production: 2006 Sarajevo, Autonomous, Man’s Films, Razor Film Produktion GmbH, Studio Maj

Danis Tanović: Circus Columbia, 2010

reviewed by Nataša Milas © 2012

Updated: 14 Jul 12