“The past is never dead. It's not even past.”
-William Faulkner, Requiem for a Nun
The series of brutal civil wars that tore apart the Balkans between 1991 and 2001 left behind some 140,000 dead, another four million displaced, and ruined cities throughout the former Yugoslavia. The economic and social consequences still echo today. Few in the West can hear them.
The Last Panthers, a six-part Sundance series that ended on May 18th, is in many ways a war story as well as a crime thriller. Most of its principal characters were molded, scarred, or crippled by the Yugoslav wars. The corruption, gangster activity, and casual murder they practice now are continuations of the tactics employed by all sides twenty years ago. The Balkans have never been a happy place; they look particularly bleak in this series.
As I mentioned in my introduction to the series, The Last Panthers focuses on three main characters: Naomi Franckom (Samantha Morton), a British insurance investigator; Milan Celik (Goran Bogdan), a Bosnian who’s involved in the Marseille diamond heist that kicks off the action; and Khalil Rachedi (Tahar Rahim), a French cop who’s trying to track down the thieves. Their lives—and those of their various relations, friends, business partners, and personal antagonists—collide and intertwine, as each pursues his or her goals and is chased by his or her demons. The action unspools across a Europe leached of most color and all hope; principally: London, Marseilles, and Belgrade.
This is not a high-adrenaline story. As in real life, the outbreaks of violence are mostly brief and nasty and full of unintended consequences. This story proceeds in the shadows, through double and triple-crosses, lies and threats, whispered conversations in ruined buildings, and calls on burner phones. Everyone’s complicit in something, even if it’s just turning away. Few of these characters are going to go on to live happy, healthy lives; the main plot question is how many will survive to have lives of any kind.
Milan was a teenager during the Bosnian War, the son of a Bosnian militia commander. Random violence and the deadly threat posed by Serbian militias shadowed his family’s lives. After Serbs killed his father and wiped out his village, Milan and his crippled and ailing brother Adnan (Nikola Rakocevic) set out for Belgrade—the Yugoslav (and Serbian) capital and the only place that held out any hope for a future. There, they adopted Serbian names, abandoned Islam, and became petty thieves and thugs, adding to the oversupply of hard-case gangsters that fuels the ongoing corruption and violence in the former Yugoslavia.
To fence the diamonds, Milan turns to Zlatko Mladic (Igor Bencina), the ethics-free Serbian acting chief of what remains of the once-famed Pink Panthers in Belgrade. Milan and Zlatko were inducted into the original Panthers at the same time. While Milan’s never made it off the street, Zlatko’s following the path that’s led other former war criminals to become high government officials and prominent businessmen. He’s going for the big money in the lucrative contracts connected to building a new Belgrade airport—a project that’s becoming a feeding trough for Western and Serbian crooks alike. To him, Milan’s a handy blunt instrument, then an obstacle, then a threat.
Khalil’s of French North African stock and grew up in another war zone—the gang-infested ghetto of Les Agnettes. The Yugoslav War may not have directly wounded Khalil and his brother Mokhtar (Kamel Labroudi), a petty gangster, but the pipeline Zlatko and his ilk used to funnel the superabundance of Balkan weapons to Western Europe flooded the slums of Marseille with the guns that made life there cheap and brutish. The fallout from the Balkan slaughter has brought a different kind of war to the banlieues of France, infecting even Khalil’s police department.
Naomi’s job is to track down the diamonds Milan took, so her insurance company doesn’t have to eat €15 million of coverage. She’s all too familiar with Balkan quicksand; she was a UN peacekeeper during the Bosnian War and suffered a shattering personal loss there. Her boss, Tom Kendle (John Hurt), a former MI-6 operative, rescued Naomi from this bad situation and appears at first to be a benign, almost fatherly figure…until Naomi’s investigation gets too close to the people involved in the Belgrade airport deal, which Tom has an interest.
American viewers may find this series difficult. It’s full of people with unfamiliar names and often unclear connections doing things that aren’t fully explained up front. It demands your full attention, from its multiple subtitled languages to a visual style you have to learn in order to fully track what’s going on. Try to resist the temptation to binge-watch; you’ll want to open a vein. But if you let it come to you gradually, you’ll find it an engrossing, atmospheric experience.
The Last Panthers is available through streaming video on the Sundance website until July 18th.
Lance Charnes is an emergency manager and former Air Force intelligence officer. His international thriller Doha 12 and his near-future thriller South are less bleak and feature more action than The Last Panthers, but also have their share of double-crosses and burner phones. His Facebook author page features spies, shipwrecks, art crime and archaeology, among other things.