Bosnia's Lingering Shadow of War

Mirjana Karanovic and Luna Mijovic as a mother and child caught in war's uneasy aftermath in
Mirjana Karanovic and Luna Mijovic as a mother and child caught in war's uneasy aftermath in "Grbavica: The Land of My Dreams." (Strand Releasing)
By Philip Kennicott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 13, 2007

History has run roughshod over the land now known as Bosnia and Herzegovina. It has sat on the troubled edges of too many empires and it has often prospered, paradoxically, when it was most subject to the governance of others. When the Cold War ended, and Yugoslavia fractured into warring enclaves and bitter statelets, the Bosnian capital of Sarajevo suffered a brutal siege. The scars of that time, the fratricidal hatreds, the genocidal purges and the use of rape as tool of war, are the background to the poignant, low-key study in healing "Grbavica: The Land of My Dreams" -- named for one of the most traumatized neighborhoods in a traumatized city.

The film was the surprise winner of the top award at the Berlin Film Festival last year, a surprise because it was the debut feature of director Jasmila Zbanic. Understated, oscillating between sadness and hope, and anchored by the phenomenal actress Mirjana Karanovic, "Grbavica" creeps up on you. The story -- about a mother and daughter whose love is predicated on an essential white lie -- sits flat on the page when reduced to a plot summary. Esma (played by Karanovic), an overworked survivor of the war, struggles to find money to send her teenage daughter, Sara (Luna Mijovic), on a school trip. Sara is experimenting with boys, struggling to assert her independence, and unwittingly forcing to the surface the great secret Esma holds: that her beloved daughter was the result of a wartime rape.

It does no great injury to the film to give away this plot detail. The power of "Grbavica" is not the arc of its story line but the fullness of the world Zbanic creates. A mosque is seen in the background, but one never really cares much about the religious or ethnic affiliations of the characters. The effects of war are seen in a bombed-out building where Sara and her boyfriend, Samir (Kenan Catic), flirt with love and fire Samir's secreted handgun with a terrifying adolescent thrill. But, for the older generation, there's a fatigue with war and a familiarity with grief that has settled into the bones of the survivors like the ugly, sodden snow has settled on Sarajevo for a seemingly endless winter.

You can never be quite sure whether that fatigue, however, is sufficient to keep the lid on a fractious world. Esma, upon whose back one notices -- this a great film for noticing things -- the pink scars of a whip, has come out the far side of war with no taste for violence. But she is being courted by Pelda (Leon Lucev), whose ties to the war linger through shady underground connections that require him to -- again one notices, in passing -- keep a gun stuffed in the waistband of his pants.

This could all explode. Or it could fade. The film has particular power for reminding the viewer of how close to the supposed center of European civilization all this barbarity took place. Trams ply the streets. There is fish to be had fresh in the market. Prosperity is covering the scars of war like a carapace of cleanliness and normality. Will the country breed a new generation of youth for whom guns have new romance? Or will Pelda and Esma achieve a companionship that allows her to transcend rape and him to return to a world without murder?

No answers. Instead there are forces beneath the surface, creating tensions, pulling various characters in various ways. Music plays a huge role in limning the dangers and potential of these sometimes ominous, sometimes redemptive currents. Old folk songs spring to the lips of an adolescent boy. An ugly pop music bred in a thuggish underground world of violence still holds sway. This isn't just background music, but rather a deeper, cultural music that is sung through people, like vessels containing for a moment ideas and affiliations beyond rational control.

Civilization may be premised on lies -- about power and authority and religion and everything else. But some of these lies are essential lies -- protective, redemptive lies that let people get on with getting on. Esma's lie was of that sort. In the end, she will have to live without it, for better and worse. She is a fictional character, but as the credits roll, you can't help wishing her well in an embarrassingly real way.

Grbavica: The Land of My Dreams (90 minutes, in Serbo-Croatian with English subtitles, at Landmark's E Street Cinema) is not rated but contains nudity and profanity.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company