Inertia reigns supreme in A Perfect Day, director Fernando León de Aranoa’s English-language debut about a group of 1995 aid workers “somewhere in the Balkans” desperately trying to solve what seems, on the surface, a simple task: removing a dead body from a rural well before it contaminates the vital drinking supply. Leading those efforts is Mambrú (Benicio Del Toro), a Puerto Rican “Aid Across Borders” veteran whose scruffy goatee and disheveled hair reflects his world-weary outlook on his mission, as well as the prospects for this war-torn country. Del Toro’s Mambrú has a shaggy dog demeanor born from a life of trying to help in places that cannot—or don’t really want to be—helped, and in trying to extricate this one bloated corpse from a deep, dank well, he finds himself faced with a problem whose difficulty is part and parcel of a country wracked by inaction, violent mistrust and bureaucratic stubbornness.
Mambrú is partnered with B (Tim Robbins), an American sidekick who’s introduced attempting, alongside Sophie (Mélanie Thierry), to figure out a way past a dead cow in the middle of the road—an obstacle made treacherous by the fact that such carcasses are often used to house landmines. As befitting his devil-may-care attitude, B opts to drive over the animal, and in doing so, he proves how go-for-broke risk-taking is often the only means of surviving situations without proper resolution. Alas, there’s no ostensibly clear answer to getting that body out of the well, which becomes even more apparent after Mambrú, B and Sophie visit the organization’s local office; they’re told they don’t have the right to do anything about the issue—at least, that is, until Sophie deceitfully claims that the corpse is housing a mine, at which point their superiors offer tacit support, if not any actual logistical help.
Eschewing the more sobering social realism of his past work (Mondays in the Sun, Princesas), director León de Aranoa lays out his Catch-22-by-way-of-MASH scenario with serio-comic clarity. Unfortunately, he generates little in the way of energy, thus leaving his story’s sputtering black comedy to emerge primarily from the exasperated reactions of Mambrú and B to every obstruction that materializes in their path. Those become numerous once the aid workers go in search of rope with which to complete their job, only to find one store owner unwilling to sell his supply because he and his neighbors need it for hangings, and a soldier disinclined to part with the rope used to fly his outpost’s flag; doing so would indicate surrender, and lead to his certain death. Competing motivations and self-interest abound. As it follows its protagonists from one failure to another, A Perfect Day imparts a compelling hopelessness, both about its characters’ chances for achieving their ends, and for a nation that—though supposedly poised on the precipice of calm thanks to peace talks—appears incapable of functioning properly.
Based on Paula Farias’ novel Dejarse Llover, León de Aranoa’s film layers on more complications via the appearance of a young boy named Nikola (Eldar Residovic), who’s saved from a gun-toting bully by Mambrú, and then leads his adult chaperones to his house, where he claims rope can be found. There are also nightmares to be discovered at that abode, but Nikola remains throughout a thinly drawn plot device whose narrative function (he’s the embodiment of war’s human toll!) is contrived. So too is Mambrú’s contentious rapport with Katya (Olga Kurylenko), an aid organization supervisor who’s been assigned to evaluate Mambrú and company’s assignment. Her past romantic relationship with Mambrú leads to much go-nowhere verbal sparring about his issues with fidelity and honesty. Since Mambrú and Katya’s past affair has no bearing on the action at hand, it comes across as filler designed to pad out a story that has few interesting places to go.
A Perfect Day’s despair over intractable circumstances is matched by its optimism about flawed but inherently good people trying to improve the world. Yet it has so little to say about miasmatic global conflicts that the film feels sketched rather than fully drawn. That’s also true of Del Toro’s Mambrú, whose powerlessness should afford more opportunities for dry, caustic humor than is found here. Nonetheless, the actor’s performance has a lived-in sense of wry despondency and resignation that, if never quite making the purgatorial proceedings energetic, at least gives them a subdued measure of fatalistic emotional authenticity.
Director: Fernando León de Aranoa
Writer: Fernando León de Aranoa, based on Paula Farias’ novel Dejarse Llover
Starring: Benicio Del Toro, Tim Robbins, Mélanie Thierry, Eldar Residovic, Olga Kurylenko
Release Date: January 15, 2016