Reviews of Recent Independent, Foreign, & Documentary Films in Theaters and DVD/Home Video

Luna Mijovic as Sara
Photo: Strand Releasing

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Written & Directed by: Jasmila Zbanic.
Produced by: Barbara Albert, Damir Ibrahimovic & Bruno Wagner.
Director of Photography: Christine A. Maier.
Edited by: Niki Mossböck.
Released by: Strand Releasing.
Language: Bosnian with English subtitles.
Country of Origin: Bosnia and Herzegovina. 90 min. Not Rated.
With: Mirjana Karanovic, Luna Mijovic, Leon Lucev, Kenan Catic & Jasna Ornela Berry.

How does a whole city deal with post-traumatic stress? When the slightest sight, sound, smell, gesture, or touch triggers a flood of memories and survival instincts? Debut feature film writer/director Jasmila Zbanic plunges into the special difficulties of women adjusting to the haunted peace in Bosnia. In a slow pan over a crowded room of ineffably sad women listening to a mournful spiritual, each is consumed by prayer or concentration or apathy. At this women’s center, a social worker ineffectually advises them to share their feelings as a path to healing, even as they catch the giggles. Single mother Esma (Mirjana Karanovic) just wants her meager government grant: “You have enough nut cases without me.”

Over several weeks, her life will turn on a simple domestic crisis. Her daughter, 12-year-old Sara (Luna Mijovic), needs money for a school trip. She would qualify for an affordable discount with the certificate confirming her father was a shaheed, a war martyr that her mother always said he was. But his body has never been found, therefore there’s no certificate, Esma tells her. In order to earn the money, Esma ventures nervously to waitress in a rowdy bar filled with drunken flirtations, until little by little her lies are exposed.

The beautifully complex mother/daughter interplay anchors the film. Tousled Mijovic, in her first movie role, perfectly captures preteen confusion, from wanting to beat boys at soccer to wanting to do more with one in particular. In lovely parallel scenes, daughter and mother gradually connect with a guy, the younger couple tentative from inexperience, the other damaged by too much experience.

“Don’t I know you from the post-mortem identification center?” must be one of the most bizarre pick-up lines, but instantly turns Pelda (Leon Lucev) into a sympathetic individual, especially as he and his fellow employee Esma share anecdotes of their pre-war lives. Sara’s sweet boyfriend Samir (Kenan Catic) shows hope for the next generation, but he also shows off with a gun, which, as Chekhov warned, has to figure heavy-handedly in the climax.

The scenic, mountainous landscape around Sarajevo is interrupted by the bulbous architecture of mosques, with the call of the imam heard on loudspeakers. Yet only a few women wear head coverings, liquor flows, and chain smoking seems endemic. The subtitles refer to the war’s perpetrators with the historical epithet of Chetniks, a more political categorization than labeling them Serbians per se. (The film’s title refers to Esma's neighborhood, which became a detention camp during the war.) Avoiding silence with their thoughts, the characters are surrounded by distinctive music, including the loud raucous “turbo folk” in the bar, which, the director explains in the press notes, is a Serbian genre associated with war, gangsters, and macho culture. Even taunting children’s songs here can be menacing when the high school mean girls have a political angle.

Much of Karanovic’s expressive performance recalls other memorable films where mothers face up to the brutal aftermath of war, like Norma Aleandro in Luis Puenzo’s The Official Story and Sophia Loren in Vittorio De Sica’s Two Women. Where Michel Deville’s Almost Peaceful about Jews in postwar France proffered the importance of community for recovery, Zbanic sensitively emphasizes female solidarity as key to coping with suffering. Nora Lee Mandel
February 16, 2007



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