Whether a result of suicide, drunken stupidity, or sheer dumb luck, train drivers the world over kill people. You’d like to believe it’s a rarity, but the truth is most likely the opposite. What then is life like for those who’ve chosen this profession? They’re constantly on alert, blaring their horns and hitting the brakes in the hopes they can stop in time. But even the best have blood on their hands. Even the most cautious must deal with the nightmares of accidents out of their control. The weight of this reality isn’t to be dismissed. And as Milos Radovic’s Train Driver’s Diary shows, it can drive people towards insanity. A sense of humor is therefore crucial. They could voluntarily become the next fatality without one.
It’s a “I laugh so I don’t cry” type deal because the painful memories are too much to bear if caught off-guard. Radovic exposes this tone from the start as the dapper looking Ilija (Lazar Ristovski) readies for a session with the transportation department’s psychological team after his latest fatality. Here he is pushing sixty and there they are barely out of college with an air of expertise. So Ilija plays with them. Why not? He’s been the driver of note on over twenty deaths, the incident that just occurred proving something he’s grown numb towards thanks to a cold demeanor instilled by two generations of stoic patriarchs. Ilija isn’t afraid of the gory details. He’s so comfortable with them that he ends up consoling the shrinks.
These decades have taken a toll regardless. He lives alone, telling himself that a train driver cannot love due to the intimate knowledge of death and loss experienced. That doesn’t stop his colleague/neighbor Diesel (Mladen Nelevic) and Sida (Jasna Djuricic). The pair is very much in love and yet the three of them are inseparably connected through unspeakable tragedy. But while they’ve accepted the good with the bad, Ilija still fears what happened the last time he let someone in close enough to care. So he keeps Jagoda (Mirjana Karanovic) at arm’s length despite her wanting to be more than friends. He waters his garden and takes flowers to the grieving members of his victims’ families. He exists as the product of routine and nothing more.
All that changes, though, when he spies a young boy on the tracks who turns to face his locomotive at the sound of the horn rather than run away. Despite all the anonymous people he’s killed, fate for some reason spares this orphan’s life. It’s a miracle both in the fact that Sima (Pavle Eric) survives and the realization that Ilija takes pause. A seamless nighttime cut transports us seven or eight years to see he never took Sima (now played by Petar Korac) back to the orphanage. He instead raised him with the same buttoned-up demeanor as his own father, pushing the boy to become more than a willful murderer. Sima of course just wants to follow his “Uncle” Ilija’s path. The old man vehemently refuses.
The result is a dryly and darkly comedic journey of self-discovery and rebirth. After being loved for the first time in his life, Sima is unceremoniously sent to work a “safe” job. After having someone to love for the first time in over twenty years, Ilija is alone to experience the type of silence that risks letting his haunted mind sever from reality. The boy wants more and the man needs less. They must discover that it was together when they were strongest. They brought the best out of the other despite the inherent strain to their relationship caused by a perpetual air of stubbornness that often led to verbal arguments devolving into “you’re not my father” or “you’re not my son.” Their love made the horrors bearable.
Radovic has a wonderful grasp on his dual genres, the humor mainly a necessary means to soften the heavy drama’s prevalence. He treats us to static shots of malaise and discontent only to move into situations that show themselves to be as cruel as they are funny. Watching crazy Ljuba (Haris Burina) teach Sima the bear minimum of train driving before leaving him for a nap is hilarious because he throws this kid into his dream job without a safety net. Where straight comedies would play on the absurdity of allowing such gross negligence, however, Train Driver’s Diary portrays the fear and despair this situation deserves. By the end Sima is beyond mere tears. Death isn’t actually a laughing matter and Radovic ensures we don’t forget.
So we watch these two men walk paths they don’t actually want to travel. Sima feels beholden to his adoptive father’s rules while Ilija has never escaped the shadow of his own dad or the tragic circumstances surrounding the loss of his true love. They both slowly start to go crazy: the boy so fearful about killing someone that he needs to run over his first victim to get over the anticipation and the man so desperate to not be without companionship that he hallucinates an impossible houseguest. It all leads us towards an inevitable decision that itself arrives with a matter-of-fact humor despite its gravity. When objectivity and acceptance towards horrors becomes the norm, extreme fixes to complicated problems can’t help but seem normal too.
The comedy isn’t laugh-out-loud, but I definitely did so more than once. Its dryness is an acquired taste, one that fans will enjoy immensely thanks to the over-the-top gruffness of Ristovski and over-abundance of innocent glee from Korac. If the latter’s graduation sounds funny — Sima has a big smile on his face while waving to a disgruntled Ilija calling him a jerk under his breath every time the camera points his way — this is the film for you. We need that sort of bitingly sardonic wit to temper the ample amounts of heart and authentic melancholy otherwise taking over the plot. It helps to humanize these characters that are more than the blank slates of emotionless stiffness they try to convey. They’re as much victims as the dead.
Train Driver’s Diary screened at the Buffalo International Film Festival.