Int’l Critics Line: Todd McCarthy On Bosnia’s Oscar-Shortlisted ‘Quo Vadis, Aida?’

The nightmarish cruelty of the Bosnian Serbs’ genocidal assault on the Bosnian Muslim town of Srebrenica in July, 1995 is vividly and nightmarishly rendered in the curiously titled Quo Vadis, Aida? Ferocious and lucid, director Jasmila Zbanic’s film relentlessly pushes to the heart of the matter while accompanying a local UN translator who does everything she can to help while also trying to arrange for the safety of her husband and two sons. It’s a despairing, nay, devastating piece of work that leaves one drained, exhausted, appalled and admiring, which is the desired and only plausible reaction to Bosnia’s International Feature Oscar hopeful. It debuted last fall at the Venice and Toronto Film Festivals. Zbannic’s previous feature, Grbavica: The Land Of My Dreams, won the Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival in 2006.

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A quarter century on, most people who even recall the events at all would be at pains to explain how and why things went down as disastrously as they did when the former Yugoslavia was broken into several distinct countries. It’s a part of the world that probably perplexes most foreigners, who couldn’t tell you why the assassination of the Austrian archduke Franz Ferdinand by a Serbian nationalist revolutionary in Sarajevo in June, 1914 triggered World War I.

Be that as it may, what you need to know here is that the rabid Bosnian leader Ratko Mladic determined to eliminate the Muslim population of the small town of Srebrenica and the surrounding area in July, 1995, at a point when the local conflict had been going on for more than three years. Theoretically present to counter any such actions was the United Nations, although nothing about its forces and readiness, as portrayed here, inspires much confidence.

One person who does appear to be on top of things is Aida (Jasna Duricic), a middle-aged school teacher and United Nations translator with a husband and two grown sons. A UN presence is supposed to impart a certain level of reassurance and rationality for those under its alleged protection, but any viewer of this film will hereafter look askance at the world organization’s ability to assume responsibility for anything; in this case useless would — tragically — seem to be the operative word.

If everyone were even half as competent as Aida, the world would be a far better, and rational, place. Even before anyone requests it, she invariably jumps in and, when possible, takes charge. Director Zbanic, working in vigorous handheld sync with cinematographer Christine A Maier, plunges forward and into the fray whenever a new emergency suddenly presents itself, which is nearly all the time.

Zbanic’s greatest challenge as director was to choreograph a state of rampant confusion and chaos with a degree of coherence for the audience. There are times when UN officials are unreachable; a dance hall entertainment program competes with rumors that gas is being released into the building; civilians wait listlessly while being reassured that their safety is being negotiated; men and women are, ominously, segregated into separate groups; and Mladic himself turns up at one point to announce, “I am here to save you.”

Even if you don’t know how the entire incident played out, virtually from the beginning you can tell that everyone is being set up for the big fall; at Mladic’s instructions, men are packed into busses like sardines and, when Aida learns that her husband and sons are on the list, she goes into official overdrive, pulling every string to save them. She knows what’s in store, while the locals do not, even as they’re being herded around, forced to turn in their IDs and shut into rooms standing with their hands on their heads.

When it was all over, the death count in Srebrenica was 8,372.

Zbanic’s immersive technique plunges you into the thick of the nightmare, even as it chooses to avoid the explicitness of the slaughter. The title refers to a scriptural incident in which the apostle Peter, fleeing Rome, encounters the risen Jesus, who asks where he is going and inspires him to turn around and face his own crucifixion.

International Critics Line

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