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A camera tracks across a room of women, as one of them giggles helplessly at something that’s clearly not funny. If it were set in Los Angeles or Paris, the opening shot of writer-director Jasmila Zbanic’s Grbavica: The Land of My Dreams would not feel especially ominous. But Grbavica is a neighborhood in Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzegovina, and not so long ago it was the site of a Serbian-run gulag where murder and torture were routine. For women prisoners, rape wasn’t just common but part of a Serbian strategy of ethnic domination.
More than a decade later, Esma (Mirjana Karanovic) tries to concentrate on supporting herself and her daughter Sara (Luna Mijovic). Being 12, Sara thinks mostly of herself and her little world, which is soon disrupted. She’s excited by the prospect of a school trip, but it costs 200 Euros—so much money that Esma has to get a second job. To supplement her income from a shoe factory, she works as a barmaid at a nightclub, Amerika Bar. The place could be on the tough side of any European town, except that the loud music shaking the place is not techno but Balkan folk music.
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At school, a series of events makes Sara realize that she knows almost nothing about her father. Esma has told her that he was a war martyr—a “shaheed.” Samir (Kenan Catic), the playground antagonist who’s tentatively becoming Sara’s first boyfriend, is also the son of such a man. But Samir can recount the facts of his dad’s death, while Sara knows nothing about hers. Meanwhile, Esma’s new job introduces her to the sort of tough guys she’s long been avoiding. Pelda (Leon Lucev), an enforcer for the mercurial gangster who owns the club, recognizes Esma from the postmortem sessions they each attended in the hopes of identifying their fathers’ bodies. A thug with an empathetic side, Pelda romances Esma, and she’s simultaneously interested in the companionship and terrified at the prospect of reentering the world of men. As for Samir, his machismo has yet to be tested, but he does impress Sara by showing her a pistol.
Grbavica focuses narrowly on Esma, Sara, and the fallout from the plans for a simple school excursion, and it doesn’t provide much in the way of historical context. (Apparently the name “Grbavica” is sufficiently sinister by itself to capture the attention of Bosnian audiences; the ironic subtitle, “The Land of My Dreams,” which comes from a patriotic poem, has been added for international viewers.) The movie never flashes back to depict the kind of horrors that characterized films from the former Yugoslavia a decade ago, though Esma’s panicky reaction to the testosterone-swamped Amerika Bar is itself a mini-history of the region’s meltdown. The only time the film steps out of Balkan history is when American director Jamie Babbit’s lesbian-themed short, Sleeping Beauties, improbably shows up on the family TV.
The winner of the best picture award at last year’s Berlin International Film Festival, Grbavica is notable both for its subject matter—it’s easy enough to forget this conflict as grim new dispatches arrive from Iraq and Sudan—and its finesse. Although the film is not especially stylish or distinctive, it benefits from compelling performances, especially Karanovic’s, and an elegantly structured script. Esma and Sara, one a sort of recluse and the other an innocent, take corresponding journeys of discovery that intersect at a psychic level.
Eventually, Sara asks her mother too many questions, and Esma breaks down and reveals all in a torrent of anger, sorrow, and horror. Although this breakthrough is Grbavica’s essential moment, it doesn’t pack the intended catharsis. It’s a violation of the film critics’ code to say what Esma is withholding from her daughter, but anyone who’s likely to watch a movie about the aftermath of the Bosnian-Serbian civil war will have guessed the secret long before Esma finally blurts it. Yet if the film doesn’t really need to spell out the revelation, Esma and Sara do, and Zbanic can hardly be faulted for ending her story by beginning their healing.