Quo Vadis, Aida? digs up an ugly truth while giving voice to old ghosts

Movie Review: Quo Vadis, Aida

Exhuming the hidden horrors of the Bosnian War forces us to bear witness to the small lapses of humanity that enable genocide as families struggle to save themselves — at all costs — in Jasmila Zbanic’s Oscar-nominated Quo Vadis, Aida?

Quo Vadis, Aida?

4/5

Directed by: Jasmila Zbanic

Starring: Jasna Djuricic, Izudin Bajrovic, Boris Ler, Johan Heldenbergh

Running time: 1 hr 41 mins

Rating: Parental Guidance

Available April 6, 2021 on VOD

By Katherine Monk

Srebrenica. Once upon a time, it was just another town nestled in the verdant breast of the Balkan Peninsula. It had pretty red-tile roofs, and was known for its spa, salt, and a Franciscan church that was converted into the White Mosque during Ottoman rule. Now, the very name Srebrenica is synonymous with “ethnic cleansing” and the massacre of 8000 men and boys.

Quo Vadis, Aida is not the first film to deal with the bloodiest chapter in the Bosnian war, but it’s the one that brings the horrors of Srebrenica home. Set in the final weeks of a four-year-old war that followed the breakup of Yugoslavia, and forced hundreds of thousands from their homes, this Oscar-nominated film doesn’t concern itself with the complex political landscape of the region — which, even after reading several official histories, remains murky.

No. This movie deals with Aida (Jasna Djuricic), an ordinary woman stuck in a continuing nightmare. We meet her in a tense meeting between a UN commander and a local leader desperate to protect civilians. She is serving as an official UN translator, but her job seems impossible, because even if the words make sense — the situation doesn’t. Pro-Serbian forces are poised to attack, and the UN just keeps threatening air strikes without actually following through on their ultimatums.

…This Oscar-nominated film doesn’t concern itself with the complex political landscape of the region — which, even after reading several official histories, remains murky. No. This movie deals with Aida (Jasna Djuricic), an ordinary woman stuck in a continuing nightmare.

The meeting ends with a plea, and Aida leaves knowing she must do everything she can to save her family from the imminent threat. She tells her husband and two sons to meet her at the UN base, where she believes they will be safe. The only problem is every townsperson in the area is now seeking refuge in the same place. More than 20,000 citizens surround the gates, and while Aida manages to get them inside the walls, she knows it’s just a matter of time before they’re rounded up — and removed.

For the next hour and forty minutes, we have to sit with her and her worries as she assesses a situation that only grows more desperate. How do you save your sons from an enemy who is only too willing to murder them in cold blood? How do you speak sense to a leader looking to establish himself as a flag-waving thug? More urgently, how do you convince a weary peacekeeper without resources to resist an enemy that has no scruples?

Quo Vadis Aida

Jasna Djuricic stars as Aida, a school teacher who loses everything during the Bosnian War. (Elevation Pictures)

The stress is overwhelming, but Aida faces it with courage and intelligence, hoping her actions and her thin blue laminated ID card can stop the looming carnage. She suspects it’s a losing cause, but she persists, and that’s why we keep watching even though — as viewers — we suspect there will be no happy ending.

We keep hoping, just like Aida, that something good can happen in a world gone mad. That’s why this film is so successful. Writer-director Jasmila Zbanic pulls us into this maelstrom of emotion through a sense of shared humanity, not cumulative violence, or even sheer fear.

The stress is overwhelming, but Aida faces it with courage and intelligence, hoping her actions and her thin blue laminated ID card can stop the looming carnage. She suspects it’s a losing cause, but she persists, and that’s why we keep watching…

War shreds hope and humanity beneath its tank tracks, and war movies often feel a need to show us the horrors to make us understand the consequences of armed conflict in graphic imagery. Yet, in the case of Srebrenica, not a single bullet was fired at the invading army before the town was taken, and the ethnic cleansing began. It was as if the entire western world threw up its hands in resignation and let it happen, and that’s where Zbanic isolates the core of her drama: in the mind of a woman who refuses to submit.

Using real locations and reconstructing key sequences in the negotiations without getting bogged down in details, we don’t just become witnesses to the worst genocide in Europe since the Second World War. We end up feeling like one of the helpless refugees, waiting for help that never arrives.

The practically flawless performance from lead actor Jasna Djuricic captures the slow erosion of the senses as the darkness closes in, but amid the desperation, all we can feel is her love. And for a story that would seem to have no redemption at hand, Aida’s ability to remain human brings all the inhumanity into stark focus — where we can see it in almost objective terms. In other words, this story of a UN translator is not a battle between good and evil, but between those willing to stand up, and those too willing to surrender.

@katherinemonk

THE EX-PRESS, April 6, 2021

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Review: Quo Vadis, Aida?

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Summary

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Exhuming the hidden horrors of the Bosnian War allows us to bear witness to the small lapses of humanity that enable genocide and allow war mongers to manipulate the masses through fear. Jasna Djuricic plays Aida, a school teacher working as a UN translator when pro-Serbian forces surround the small town of Srebrenica. Fearing for the worst, she tries to save her two sons and husband from the threat of "ethnic cleansing" -- but even moral voices can be muted by fear. The practically flawless performance from lead actor Jasna Djuricic captures the slow erosion of the senses as the darkness closes in, but amid the desperation, all we can feel is her love. And for a story that would seem to have no redemption at hand, Aida’s ability to remain human brings all the inhumanity into stark focus — where we can see it in almost objective terms. In other words, this story of a UN translator is not a battle between good and evil, but between those willing to stand up, and those too willing to surrender. - Katherine Monk

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