Vinko Bresan's ''Witnesses" takes us back to the turmoil in the Balkans. But the movie is not directly about the war. It's a cleverly told murder mystery. Set near the start of the war in 1992 in a small, perpetually gray Croatian town ''near the front lines," we're told, ''Witnesses" opens with an impressive, uninterrupted Steadicam shot that takes us up and down a damp, dark neighborhood and into an apartment, then to a side street where a car pulls up and three soldiers get out, head up to a house, and open fire with machine guns.
The victim is a Serbian smuggler and loan shark. We never meet him, but his notorious reputation lingers. Not that his ethnicity or his line of work matters, much as some locals want to make an issue of it: The man was killed, and the question is why.
Barbir (Drazen Kuhn), the detective on the case, and Novinarka (Alma Prica), the lady reporter with whom he had a brief flirtation, are looking for answers. Bresan, meanwhile, is looking to make ''Witnesses" interesting, so the narrative, which has been adapted from the novel ''Plaster Sheep," is scrambled and told elliptically.
The film initially appears to be about Majka, a brand-new war widow (Mirjana Karanovic), and the three soldiers who had a hand in the shooting, one of whom is her son. Majka's head is wrapped mournfully in a black scarf, and in her living room is the casket in which her husband lies. She explains her situation to Barbir, then the movie backs up and explains the scenario from Barbir and Novinarka's vantage point. Where once the movie was retracing its steps, it soon starts filling in holes.
The shooting has a witness, and the crafty reporter suspects the witness may have been the Serb's little girl. How else can that innocent box of chocolate cereal in his house be explained? The three soldiers, described by people who've seen them around as big-headed, big-nosed, and ''ugly, really ugly" (though it's up to you to say who is which), plan to do away with the witness. Yet as they deliberate, the movie's logic springs a leak: The witness could squeal on them, so what's there to think about?
Shuffling the proceedings lends the movie intrigue where there was just a slight tale with a compelling historical backdrop. The bid doesn't always work. Relationships are left unclarified and a few motives left unexplained. And the optimistic finale feels shrugged off. Yet, the movie skillfully shows us the surprise a savvy film editor can generate with a single cut. We move away from and then back to conversations, making us privy to information we were unaware we ever needed to know. In that sense, ''Witnesses," as a title, refers to seeing both political atrocity and artistic ingenuity.
Wesley Morris can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.