‘A Perfect Day’: Helpin’ ain’t easy for do-gooders in skillfully made black comedy

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What a mess.

All around the world, in places we talk about and places we might not even know about, just navigating one’s way through everyday life without getting caught in the crossfire of the latest inexplicable conflict is a constant uphill struggle.

Even if you’re an outsider just trying to do some good, you’re putting yourself at risk. Often, all you can do is accept and laugh at the absurdity of it all, keep your head down and move forward.

So it goes for the foreign-aid workers in writer-director Fernando León de Aranoa’s searing black comedy “A Perfect Day,” set in the Balkans of the mid-1990s. Taking place over the course of one day — a day about as far from perfect as you can imagine — this is a “War Is [Absurdist] Hell” story with echoes of everything from “Catch-22” to “MASH” to “Good Morning, Vietnam” to “Three Kings.”

It’s almost a requirement for a movie such as this to star Benicio Del Toro. (Think of Del Toro’s work in “Sicario,” “Savages,” “Inherent Vice,” et al.) Who’s better at playing cynical, world-weary, globetrotting characters in dark sunglasses, rumpled clothes, and questionable facial hair?


Del Toro’s playing a good guy this time around — tattered around the fringes of his soul, not always the most noble when it comes to the romantic pursuits, but at heart, a good man.

He plays Mambru, a contracted civilian from Puerto Rico who works for a humanitarian organization called Aid Across Borders. Mambru leads a small band of workers trying to help out the residents of far-flung villages near the end of the Bosnian War.

Mambru’s teammates include a similarly jaded and experienced logistics specialist known only as “B” (a fantastically disheveled and very funny Tim Robbins); the obligatory loyal interpreter (Fedja Stukan); the beautiful and resourceful Katya (Olga Kurylenko), who has unresolved romantic history with Mambru, and a naïve and idealistic water purification expert named Sophie (Melanie Thierry), who’s so green she hasn’t even seen her first corpse.

Just getting from one village to the next is a risk-taking enterprise. As “B” when they encounter a dead cow in the middle of the road, it almost certainly means there are land mines planted on one or both sides of that dead cow — the better to blow you up when you try drive around the dead cow.

When the team discovers the corpse of a very large man in a water well — and I’m pretty sure that’s a serious health hazard right there — the aid workers are met with ludicrous roadblocks to their effort to extricate the corpse.

Well-intentioned but by-the-book UN peacekeepers say the aid workers don’t have the authority to remove the corpse. They simply don’t have remove-corpse-from-well jurisdiction.

When they finally try to pull the big corpse from the well, the rope breaks. Now the team must find new, better rope, and what a quest that becomes.

Of course, “A Perfect Day” isn’t about rope any more than “The Maltese Falcon” is about a maltese falcon. (Mambru’s obsession with getting a soccer ball for a local boy  — fine work by young Eldar Residovic — concerns him at least as much as the quest for rope.) In de Aranoa’s first English-language film, the director tells us the story of a war-ravaged land not only through the eyes of those foreign aid workers, but through the experiences of some locals as well.

With an eclectic soundtrack that features the sounds of Marilyn Manson, the Velvet Underground and (in a beautifully shot montage) a cover of “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” performed by Marlene Dietrich, well-timed editing and crisp cinematography — and of course that terrific cast led by the great Del Toro — “A Perfect Day” is a rough-edged gem.

[s3r star=3.5/4]

Sundance Selects presents a film written and directed by Fernando León de Aranoa, based on the novel “Dejarse Llover” by Paula Farias. Running time: 106 minutes. Rated R (for language including some sexual references). Available on demand and opens Friday at the Gene Siskel Film Center.

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