Train Driver’s Diary is a Wes Anderson–like take on the spectre of death that comically hangs over the life of every train driver.
Director of Photography:
Running time: 85 minutes
Original title: Dnevnik mašinovođe
There is something delightfully Wes Andersonian about the Serbian Train Driver’s Diary, even though the black humour of the story is inherently, unmistakably Balkan and would never make it past a Hollywood executive. The exuberantly staged sets are one reason for this – countless scenes take place inside redecorated train compartments that are a world unto themselves – but another is the symmetry inside the shots, to which train tracks visually lend themselves.
Narration is sparse and belongs to Ilija (Lazar Ristovski, who looks and behaves like a low-key version of John Cleese), a train driver and lifelong bachelor who in the prologue tells us how many people he has killed over the years. It’s not his fault, he assures us, it is just something that comes with the territory. And without missing a beat, we see him crash into a minivan filled with an entire Gypsy band that has got stuck on the tracks.
He visits two psychologists to assess how he is coping post-trauma, but his hilariously graphic retelling of the accident causes the one to throw up and the other to faint. For him, however, this is just part of life. He has clearly disconnected from the social fabric of existence and has no intimate relationship with almost anybody. That is, until he nearly runs over a 10-year-old orphan boy, Sima (Pavle Erić), who has decided to end his own life. For whatever reason, Ilija takes Sima under his wing, and before we know it, thanks to a wonderful cut that allows the director to change time but not place, the boy’s voice has broken.
The teenage Sima has but one dream: to become a train driver like “Uncle” Ilija. But Ilija will have none of it and persistently reminds Sima that he can do whatever he wants when Ilija is dead, but until then, he will not be a train driver. The main reason, of course, is the inherently homicidal nature of the job – a heavy burden that Ilija has had to shoulder for decades and from which he wants to spare the naïve Sima. But the latter has his heart set on the train industry, and so he gets sent to train as a dispatcher, before life inevitably intervenes.
The film is filled with oddball situations and eccentric characters, including a hairless dog with a mop of hair reminiscent of Donald Trump’s infamous coif. One particularly funny moment has Sima doing push-ups with the dog on his back providing very little extra weight.
Petar Korać provides a charming performance as the late-teen Sima, a blond-haired blue-eyed boy with a heart of gold who has always been cared for by Ilija but who has never received any physical intimacy from him – not even a hug. This has left the young man socially awkward but eminently likeable, although the scene in which he freaks out driving a train for the first time requires him to stretch his eyes as big as plates, pull his face like a clown and emote to a degree that speeds past acceptability into the domain of the histrionic.
Train Driver’s Diary could have done with a better title – perhaps “Love and Death: The Tragicomic Life of a Train Driver”? – but the film itself is a continuous joy that manages to squeeze a great deal of narrative and emotions into a relatively short running time. The characters are all very memorable, and although a final development regarding Ilija’s long-lost girlfriend Danica takes up too much time, it does provide a satisfying climax to his otherwise painfully slow emotional development.
Viewed at the Bratislava International Film Festival 2016.