TRIAGE – Much More than a War Film
A viewer’s response
The Ancient Mayans buried their dead with maize and a jade stone placed inside the deceased one’s mouth, serving as food and currency for their journey to the underworld. In Ancient Rome, mourners took part in a public procession to the funeral pyre or tomb, wearing masks that depicted images of their family’s deceased ancestors. Every society on earth from the dawn of time has devised its own death rituals to ease the living.
A woman grateful for a “charade.” A procession of stretchers ceremoniously set down. A man administering last rights to the luckless as they are euthanized. Even a doctor’s system of color coded tags meant to attribute design to death that is arbitrary, is ritual. And a man haunted by a burden for the fate of the dead.
Fade to black. “It is only the dead who have seen the end of war.” This quote by Plato does not appear on screen at the end of Danis Tanovic’s Triage to offer a quick resolution, slick and easy moralizing or a dramatic punchline. It is an invitation to meditate on the experience one has just had while watching the film. There is a question inherent within this quote that is so illusive, that at the moment the film ends one immediately has a fleeting revelation of it and then quickly returns to the only vantage point one can have — that of the living.
If you are intending to see Triage with the expectation of explosions, bullets and savage scenes depicting combat, know that there are images you won’t soon forget. But Triage is not just a film about war. Also, not simply a reflection on the “voyeurism” of war reporters, of course the film examines the question as to what motivates the photojournalist. We’ve all seen the Pulitzer prize winning photograph of the execution of Viet Cong Captain Nguyen Van Lem. What may be less familiar to us is the photo of the widow he left behind. And possibly for some of us who live so far removed from the experience of war or extermination, this kind of documentation helps us to wrap our heads around the fact that such atrocities do indeed exist.
At first consideration of Triage, it may seem as though the war scenes in Iraqi Kurdistan are the plot and the protagonist’s return home is the subplot. But actually, it’s the other way round. The first half hour sets the stage for the rest of the film. One which explores numerous themes. It is a film about those left behind and about those who survive. It is a story of guilt and redemption. Universally, it is a meditation on our relationship to the dead.
“We cannot let go of the pain. We have to carry it with us forever. That is what it means to live.”
It is also a rumination on what it means to be alive. What it means to be alone in one’s experience. And what it means to be alive forever altered, as truly understood by Joaquín (Christopher Lee). All of this is extremely resonant beyond the backdrop of a war story. In Mark (Colin Farrell), we see a man who is forever changed. From the moment he exits the taxi and approaches his front door, we see it. The film puts forth the question as to whether or not in some cases “we can only understand what we directly experience.” And in some cases, I would say this is so.
As its title suggests, Triage is about sorting. In the war zone it’s about sorting the savable from the irreparable. Moreover, back home it’s about sorting the savable from the irrecoverable. And about finding a way to endure the unendurable. Thus begins the contemplation.
What Triage is devoid of is any Hollywood glossiness. There is no blood-and-thunder action hero, no glamorizing of warfare and no cliché Hollywood dialogue. The real conflict in this film is an internal one centered around the first few weeks of post traumatic grief. Chapter One in the grieving process. Or maybe even the prologue to the grieving process (I’m reminded of Gordy Hoffman’s “Love Liza” — Wilson only truly begins to allow himself to grieve in the final moments of the film when he finally opens the letter).
On all accounts the acting is top drawer. One doesn’t feel like they are watching actors working. Neither is the camera intrusive, but rather serves as a window through which the viewer looks in. As well, there are visual moments of pure poetry. Triage is clearly marked with credibility and authenticity by virtue of its director Danis Tanovic and its author, former war correspondent Scott Anderson — both whom have seen war first hand through the lens.
Sir Christopher Lee (Joaquín) is effortless and delivers a performance that is weighted by life experience. Colin Farrell has never been so fragile and not merely because of his dramatic weight loss for the role. There is a seismic shift that takes place in the psyche of his character Mark. His portrayal is vulnerable and his embodiment of the accompanying circumstances is wrought with unclad honesty. Paz Vega, whose character’s story is somewhat diluted from that of Anderson’s novel, imbues Elena with a love for Mark that is tender, unmistakable and almost tangible in some scenes. Branko Djuric plays the supporting role of Dr. Talzani unforced, unsentimental and with a quiet frankness and genuine substance. The cast is rounded out with Jamie Sives who plays the sensitive David and Kelly Reilly (Diane), who doesn’t appear to have an untruthful bone in her body.
As with all novels put to screen, there are definite omissions of some details and back-stories that are contained within the book. The film could have easily been 4 hours long in order to encompass the entire novel. But that would not necessarily have made for good film-making. Instead, the film runs just over an hour and a half. Yet the film in its brevity succeeds in doing what any good art does. It asks questions. In this case, some of the questions can be difficult to look at. Though I personally have never seen a war zone and in that way have little in common with the protagonist, I somehow felt as though I met someone in the film’s novelist and its director who might understand me on some level. And for that, I thank them.
Triage will be available on blu ray and dvd in the U.S. on August 10th.