Arriving at a moment when interest in all things atomic has been piqued by the global success of “Oppenheimer,” Dragan Bjelogrlić’s “Guardians of the Formula” offers a far more classical, but no less gripping take on a little-known episode marking a historical intersection between the medical and nuclear sciences. Based on Goran Milašinović’s book “Vinča Case,” there are further echoes of Christopher Nolan’s epic in how this elegantly constructed movie centers the ethical and ideological dilemmas of brilliant men of science thrust, somewhat reluctantly, onto the international political stage. But it differs in its careful inclusion of the heroism of ordinary people, and in showing how, while genius is valuable, it’s only prolonged exposure to more everyday human decency that can irradiate the more bull-headed scientific ego with the compassion needed for actual wisdom.
It is 1958 and Georges Mathé (a terrifically contained, compact performance from Alexis Manenti) is at work in his cluttered lab in the Curie Institute in Paris. He is dispassionately observing the death throes of some mice — marking the latest in a long line of unsuccessful transplantation experiments — when he’s summoned offsite to a secure hospital location. Three young Yugoslav physicists and their brusquely charismatic professor, Dragoslav Popović (a simmering, bristling Radivoje Bukvić) have been flown in after being accidentally exposed to a massive dose of radiation, and Mathé may be the only doctor capable of saving their lives.
It is a Hail Mary pass. And the ardently anti-bomb Mathé, suspicious of the project’s covert nature, has no intention of accepting an assignment so shrouded in secrecy that security agents almost outnumber the medical staff. Later, though, perhaps motivated by his wife’s pregnancy and a glimpse of a rapidly deteriorating Popović undergoing his initial examination, or perhaps more pragmatically driven by the promise of near-unlimited support and resources, he changes his mind. As a researcher who, in a telling detail, unsmilingly corrects anyone who calls him “doctor,” insisting on “professor” instead, the opportunity to prove his more outré theories correct on human subjects is maybe too tempting to refuse.
In a clever flourish from screenwriters Vuk Ršumović, Ognjen Sviličić and Bjelogrlić, Mathé’s singleminded, ethically questionable pursuit of scientific breakthrough is mirrored with that of Popović. Extended flashbacks take us through the weeks leading up to the accident at the Vinca Institute near Belgrade, cluing us into the physicist’s volcanic character, the pressures on him to deliver on orders handed straight down from autocratic Yugoslavian president Tito, and his relationship with his barely-graduated research team, who regard him as a kind of god. Meanwhile in France, the exuberance of the young Yugoslavian patients (appealing played by Ognjen Mićović, Jovan Jovanović and Alisa Radaković) wins over the local nurses and hospital workers, not to mention the locals who turn up in droves in to donate blood. Gradually, the atmosphere of disdain and mutual hostility between Popovic and Mathé gives way to a prickly, never overly sentimentalized respect, which is perhaps simply each recognizing in the other similar ambition, similar brilliance and similar, potentially fatal, flaws.
It takes quite some skill to build tension from intricate science that is incomprehensible to most lay people, but from the dial-readings and flickering machines of the nascent nuclear reactor, to the syringe-plunges and bloodied swabs of the French hospital, Bjelogrlić constructs an increasingly taut narrative that plays at times like a ticking-clock thriller. He is aided by Ivan Kostić’s gracious, rich cinematography and especially by the impeccable production design from Jelena Sopić and Jovana Cvetković, which feels accurate to the era but also immersively lived-in, with none of the vintage, museum-exhibit preciousness that can sometimes bedevil the period movie.
But largely the film, which won the Variety Piazza Grande award in Locarno before launching what should be a long festival run at the Sarajevo Film Festival, derives its intrigue from its gathering emotional momentum, especially once the patients sicken after initially rallying. Mathé decides that his dangerously unproven bone marrow treatment is the only remaining option, and two of the donors in particular, a mechanic, played with touching, scraggly gravitas by Jean-Louis Coulloc’h, and a vivacious housewife played by a luminous Anne Serra, become the story’s real heroes.
As much as atomic-age paranoia was fueled by humanity’s darkest impulses — such as the desire to be able to unilaterally wipe out a mid-sized city at the touch of a big red button — “Guardians” reminds us movingly of the species’ other extreme: the willingness of some extraordinary individuals to undergo an incredibly painful, potentially lethal procedure in the slim hope it can save a stranger’s life. Mathé and Popović changed history for sure. But a mechanic and a housewife changed them, ensuring for them a more benign legacy that finally gets due recognition here, in a film that proves, in elegant defiance of Chekov’s Gun, that sometimes the most dramatic story is of the bomb that doesn’t go off.