Exhuming a dead body, stuck inside of a well in an unnamed Balkan country during the Kosovo War, becomes an obsession for a group of “Aid Across Borders” workers trying to purify a UN-blocked local water supply in A Perfect Day, a would-be thriller that tones down its potentially violent conflict in favor of slight, satirical drama. The opening shot of director Fernando León de Aranoa’s film adeptly communicates its tensions between humor and death, as an object, being lifted upward, is slowly revealed to be a human corpse. The higher the body goes, the more light emerges, transforming an initially abstract image into a concrete instantiation of a lost life. On the end of the rope, struggling mightily to get the body out, is Mambrú (Benicio Del Toro), a Puerto Rican aid worker whose hopes are dashed when the rope snaps in two, plunging the body back to the bottom of the well.
Cut to a nearby road, where fellow aid workers B (Tim Robbins) and Sophie (Mélanie Thierry) happen upon a dead bull, plopped in the middle of the road. B is quickly pinpointed as the company madman, flooring his jeep and plowing straight through, despite the known fact that such animals often have mines planted around them, and much to Sophie’s chagrin. His introductory, badboy antics work because his chosen radio tracks—nondescript, hard-rock music—play from within the car rather than on the soundtrack throughout the ordeal, revealing the sequence as one man’s self-made roller-coaster ride, asking the viewer to witness, rather than take part in, the thrill-seeking.
Much of A Perfect Day’s first half establishes these kinds of curious points about its characters. When Mambrú arrives at a UN meeting and discovers that his ex-flame, Katya (Olga Kurylenko), a water and sanitation rep, is in town, he exchanges some banter with a local man who comments that he’s just seen the most beautiful woman. Smiling, Mambrú asks, “She hot?” The local holds up three fingers. Confused, Mambrú asks, “Out of 10?” “No, out of 3,” the man responds. That de Aranoa and co-screenwriter Diego Farias use the exchange to gently emphasize each man’s cultural assumptions rather than land a broader punchline at either’s expense speaks to the film’s sensibilities as a whole, where minor, earned revelations regarding character behavior are preferable to farcical, caricatured comedy.
Moreover, A Perfect Day addresses nationalism without speechifying. When Mambrú explains that he’s from Puerto Rico, a Balkan official exclaims: “Ah, Puerto Rico, an American!” Mambrú’s reaction shot effectively communicates his ambivalence regarding the assessment, since the film deliberately positions Mambrú as a character who’s conscious of the harm that results from premature conclusions; in this case, Puerto Rico’s colonized past and current standing as a territory, but not a state, of the U.S., are the subtext for Mambrú’s international, humanitarian motivations. Perhaps that’s why the film opens with the title “somewhere in the Balkans,” not because the specific region is irrelevant, but that it would bring a certain set of assumptions regarding any nation’s past that de Aranoa wishes to avoid.
Unfortunately, these initially perceptive and considered elements give way to a second half that opts to shirk the film’s earlier ambiguity and celebrate its ragtag crew for their continued resolve in the face of bureaucratic red tape. De Aranoa also allows rock tracks like Marilyn Manson’s “Sweet Dreams” and the Velvet Underground’s “Venus in Furs”—the kinds of songs that were previously resigned to B’s radio—to uncomplicatedly take over the film’s soundtrack as anthems for audience members to jam to while the gang makes its drives across treacherous terrain. As a matter of form complimenting content, these choices reflect the film’s gradual descent into a more conventional and uncomplicated style. A Perfect Day finally seems conspicuously at odds with itself, neither funny nor impassioned enough to pass as an accomplished vision of transnational welfare.