Serbian director Ognjen Glavonic’s The Load is so minimal and austere that its title – nominally referring to the cargo carried in the truck driven by its protagonist, Vlada (Leon Lucev) – immediately takes on metaphorical meaning. The film’s basic setup — illicit material being transported over dangerous terrain — has been described as an oblique riff on Henri-Georges Cluzot’s 1953 thriller The Wages of Fear. However, Glavonic’s film is, almost perversely, an anti-thriller; long stretches offer little more than observation of the mostly taciturn Vlada grimly navigating the road. The film is set in 1999, during the Balkan wars, as NATO is conducting its bombing campaign against Slobodan Milosevic’s regime. In the midst of this war-torn atmosphere, Vlada is taken to a warehouse in Kosovo and assigned a truck with sealed cargo in the back, the contents of which he’s not allowed to ask about. He’s given strict instructions to go directly, without making stops of any kind, to the drop-off destination in Belgrade.
While en route, Vlada immediately encounters a blocked bridge and is forced to make a detour, one which proves a literal manifestation of the film’s main structural conceit: the proceedings largely remain fixed on the protagonist, but veer away from him periodically, with panning shots which briefly follow secondary characters. It’s not until a very late scene that we can guess what Vlada’s been carrying, the clues along the way being so subtle that they’re easy to miss. In fact, the film withholds so much that the vague details Glavonic does offer can easily sail over the heads of viewers not familiar with the history of the 1990s Balkan wars, or the specific war crime referred to here (for that information, you’ll have to go to Glavonic’s 2016 documentary, Depth Two, which gives a fuller description of a context only hinted at in The Load). In the end, plenty of doubts are left as to whether this film has much to say of its own accord — especially as The Load tends to register more with a kind of muted admiration for the filmmaking, rather than elicit the sorrow and outrage that would be demanded of the subject it only alludes to.
Published as part of August 2019’s Before We Vanish.