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film review

Benicio Del Toro plays one of two main aid workers, a character of indeterminate nationality.

A Perfect Day is a movie about a group of foreign aid workers during the Bosnian war who spend a day trying to acquire a new rope to pull a dead body out of a well, where it has been thrown to poison the water supply. Their old rope broke and this war-torn place is short on supplies and big on elaborate excuses why the aid workers can't buy or borrow the few bits that are available.

So, that title is highly ironic and A Perfect Day, the first English-language feature from the Spanish director Fernando Leon de Aranoa, is in many ways a remarkable film: a taut, darkly comic drama about the dilemmas of international intervention in civil war, all of it neatly symbolized by one elusive length of rope. It is also, sadly, a film much marred by its sexism.

American stars Benicio Del Toro and Tim Robbins play the two main aid workers, Mambru and B; they are characters of indeterminate nationality in a Spanish movie shot in English with a smattering of Spanish, Bosnian and Serbian, but they belong to a recognizable American type; the actors create two lovable can-do cowboys, guys who will gleefully drive over a dead cow to avoid a land mine or fight off local toughs who have stolen a kid's soccer ball. They bend rules, they crack jokes, but most of all they help people in desperate need. These men are heroes who drive the story forward.

And then there are the women: Mélanie Thierry plays Sophie, an earnest greenhorn from France who has to be protected from her own ignorance. Olga Kurylenko plays Katya, a ball-busting beauty from headquarters who has had an affair with Mambru and told his girlfriend about it. She has now returned to the field to see if their operation should be shut down since the latest ceasefire seems to be holding. In short, these women are roadblocks whose narrative role is to provide the men with background to explain and foreground to conquer.

On the one hand, the director and his co-writer Diego Farias have penned an impressive script (working from a novel by the screenwriter's sister, Spanish author Paula Farias). Its story is tightly wound around that symbol of the rope yet spirals outward to reveal both the horrible prize civilians pay for war and the problems faced by those who want to help them. The manner in which Leon de Aranoa plays with an audience's confusion in the opening moments of the film is brilliant, so too is the black humour attached to the way the body finally surfaces. And the place where Mambru does eventually find his rope produces a moment of the darkest possible irony.

Meanwhile, the dialogue crackles with laughter and both Robbins, strategizing with only a narrowing of the eyes, rendering judgment with the twist of the lip, and the more conventionally macho Del Toro, are adept at creating two amusing and likeable figures in a film that improbably yet successfully turns aid work into black comedy.

On the other hand, both Thierry and Kurylenko are handed thankless roles, characters introduced by much raising of male eyebrows: I was waiting for someone to say, "Women, can't live with them …," and in several scenes the screenwriters came perilously close. The belated thawing and deepening of both women in the second half is never enough to rebalance the movie. Naturally, both Thierry and Kurylenko are at least a dozen years younger than their male co-stars and, to the extent one can make an objective judgment about such things, much better looking.

This film's achievements are significant – it received a standing ovation at Cannes last year – but how can you overlook this massive flaw? Every other Hollywood action movie tells its audience that men are competent, funny and interesting while women are something less than that; to see independent directors hang themselves with that same fraying rope is heartbreaking.