‘The Eclipse’ Review: A Rich, Timely Doc Probing a Serbian Family’s Darkened Memories of the Yugoslav Wars

The solar eclipses of 1961 and 1999, both observable in Serbia, bracket the events explored in the lyrical imagery of Nataša Urban’s debut feature-length documentary. But because life so rarely arranges itself neatly along a defined timeline, they do it imprecisely, blurring over a little at either edge, the way memories do. As a metaphor, too, these astronomical events are evocatively imperfect: Our tiny little moon can occasionally blot out the sun the way an individual’s act of willful forgetfulness can all but obscure massive geopolitical upheaval. But an eclipse passes according to immutable laws of physics; memory and reckoning do not obey a similarly strict orbit. People are far less predictable than planets.

Still, our interpretation of celestial mechanics can be politicized, as the Serbian-born Urban outlines in the contrasting depictions of the two eclipses. In 1961, lovely, scratchy archive footage shows excited Yugoslavs crowding the streets, at the express encouragement of the government, holding up pinhole papers and shards of blackened glass to safely observe the event. In 1999, by contrast, the Serbian population, made paranoid by prolonged conflict and state-sponsored messages about the dangers of solar radiation, drew down their blinds and hung blankets over their windows. Urban’s brother, Igor, remembers being one of only a couple of people on the street after the air raid siren sounded to signal the beginning of the eclipse.

In between the two dates, Urban traces the overlapping reminiscences of her family, who simply tried to maintain some semblance of normality despite the privations of war — a moral ambivalence Urban confronts but neither excuses nor judges. Interspersed with text blocks tracing a roll-call of now-infamous battles and acts of genocide, her father Borislav, an avid hiker, is shown in crisp, contemporary footage — older, white-haired but still spry — retracing some of the journeys he documented in his 30-year-spanning “mountaineering diary.” When Urban gently points out the absurdity of Borislav bringing his family up mountains and trekking into forests while nearby their countrymen were committing atrocities nearby, you can practically hear the cognitive dissonance in his shrugging response.

Her mother Lia is more usually shown at home, tending to her garden and lightly scolding her daughter for wanting to excavate memories of a painful time “we’re all trying to forget.” When Urban asks her grandmother if she remembers the war, she replies, “Which one?” Her friends are less circumspect; sometimes they even supply memories Urban has herself suppressed, like a trip she took to the ruined Croatian town of Vukovar, one of the protracted conflict’s earliest casualties. Best of all, there are conversations with a fantastic, foul-mouthed aunt, a pianist with a few choice epithets for Serbian war criminal Ratko Mladic.

The images are only rarely directly of the events her cast of characters talk about. More often, Urban and DP Ivan Markovic create illuminating mismatches between the voices and the pictures, which range from visceral scenes of pig slaughter to delicate domestic details of pickling jars and pressed leaves in scrapbooks. They cycle through different stocks and grades, and from macro close-ups to vast pictorial landscapes, somehow never feeling disjointed or scattershot. Urban mentions that she went to study photography in Budapest in 1996 and that “photographic chemicals still smell like freedom to me.”

This tactile, sensual approach to form is especially clear in her use of home-movie style Super-8 footage, or roughed-up archive shots, such as a recurring black-and-white image of our scarred and pitted moon, blown up huge and fuzzy with warmth and grain. Coupled with Jared Blum and Bill Gould’s eerie, melancholy score, which is occasionally accented with the twanging of a Jew’s harp, it makes “The Eclipse” a heady tumble into a wholly subjective, yet wholly persuasive, evocation of civilian family life in wartime. Given the parallels with current world events and the ongoing debate around the complicity of civilian populations in acts of aggression carried out by their governments, it’s a perspective that, sadly, could not be more timely.

There is hope, though. Lia tells of the hibiscus plant in her abandoned office that she kept returning to water despite the threat of shelling, and about which, she says wryly, she cared for more she did most of her colleagues. She’s joking, but her offhand anecdote does highlight a resonant theme: the way the artificial ugliness of war’s death-drive cannot wholly conquer the beauty and life-force of the natural world. The end of the second eclipse is signalled not, as we might expect, with gradual shadows receding but, in one of editor Jelena Maksimovic’s particularly inspired cuts, with a piglet being born wetly onto the straw of a barnyard floor. Rebirth may not come easily, or prettily, or according to schedule, but it must come. The darkness cannot last forever.

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