Volume 76, Number 38 | February 14 -20, 2007


Written and Directed by Jasmila Zbanic
Opening at the Film Forum Feb. 16
209 West Houston St.
(212-727-8110; filmforum.org)

Strand Releasing

Mirjana Karanovic’s face conveys everything we need to know in this movie about a Bosnian woman’s life following the Yugoslav wars.

Life during reconstruction

By Leonard Quart

“Grbavica” is the emotionally heartrending feature film debut of 32-year-old Bosnian screenwriter and director Jasmila Zbanic that won the Golden Bear at the 2006 Berlin Film Festival, and was Bosnia & Herzegovina’s official entry for the Best Foreign Language Film at the 79th Academy Awards.

The film’s narrative is simple and minimal. Despondent single mother Esma (Mirjana Karanovic) lives with her tough and sullen 12-year-old daughter Sara (Luna Mijovic) in Sarajevo’s Grbavica neighborhood, where life is still in the process of being reconstructed after the barbaric 1990s Yugoslav wars. She works nights as a cocktail waitress in a raucous nightclub, where the customers too strenuously seek pleasure to escape their daily lives. For Esma, working there is an oppressive, physically exhausting experience, but necessary to augment the small sum of government aid she receives.

“Grbavica’s” Sarajevo is gray, seedy and somewhat corrupt, but the film’s emphasis is not on the nature of present-day Bosnia’s social and political environment, though the camera provides us with some suggestive details about life in the city. The film’s center is the complicated but loving relationship between mother and daughter. It’s a bond that becomes agonizingly charged and violent when the daughter needs documentation about her father’s supposed death as a shaheed (a war martyr) for a school trip — records that Esma can’t provide. “Grbavica,” however, is more than a depiction of a mother-daughter relationship; it’s also an evocation of a world where people’s lives have been brutalized by a war whose memories are too indelible and painful to purge.

As Zbanic said in the film’s press materials, “In 1992 everything changed and I realized that I was living in a war in which sex was used as part of a war strategy to humiliate women and thereby cause the destruction of an ethnic group! Twenty thousand women were systematically raped in Bosnia during the war.” And Esma’s life has been totally altered by that experience — popping pills and having panic attacks whenever she sees men in uniform. She also attends group therapy sessions at the local Women’s Center, but remains silent about her own anguished past when other women talk mournfully about what happened to them during the war.

“Grbavica” is devoid of false notes, as Zbanic elicits totally authentic performances from her actors. Mirjana Karanovic’s Esma says little, but her face conveys everything we need to know about a disconsolate life where moments of pleasure are extremely rare, and where she has to continually struggle to keep a volcanic secret.

The film concludes on an ambivalently positive note. After angrily striking out at each other, Esma and Sara have achieved some form of reconciliation, with Sara on her school trip joining her fellow students singing the upbeat “Sarajevo, My Love” and giving a hesitant goodbye wave to her mother.

What makes “Grbavica” stirring is Zbanic’s gift for constructing scenes where her camera pans along the doleful but strong faces of the victimized Bosnian women at the Therapy Center, as one woman sings poignantly of a “spring welling up” amid a world of “blood and tears.” In its simplicity, it’s more emotionally and politically resonant than all the big budget virtuosity of Iñárritu’s Academy Award-nominated film “Babel.”

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