By Richard Ades
Quo Vadis, Aida? is set during the Bosnian War (1992-95), which gave rise to Europe’s most deadly outbreak of genocide since the Holocaust. Not only that, but it takes place in the town of Srebrenica, site of one of the conflict’s most infamous atrocities.
That should clue you in that the film won’t make you feel good about the human condition. Instead, you’ll feel drained, exhausted and saddened by its depiction of the hatred and cruelty one people can direct against another people—and of the inability of well-meaning but powerless institutions to prevent it.
Writer-director Jasmila Zbanic has created a breathless account of what happened in July 1995, when Serbian troops set their sights on Srebrenica even though the United Nations had declared it a safe zone. The fictionalized but based-on-reality tale is told through the eyes of Aida Selmanagic (Jasna Djuricic), a Bosnian Muslim teacher who works as an interpreter for the UN peacekeeping detail.
It’s Aida’s job to convey to other Bosnians what she’s told by the Dutch officers who are attempting to protect the town on behalf of the UN. This soon puts her in a bind, as she begins to suspect they have little power to stop the advance of Serbian forces under a ruthless general named Ratko Mladic (Boris Isakovic).
Though she’s charged with relaying a calming message, Aida becomes increasingly concerned for the safety of the thousands who’ve sought sanctuary in Srebrenica, including her husband and two sons. It’s an impossible situation, and a terrifying one.
As Aida, Djuricic digs deep to express the anguish of a woman caught between her duties to her employers and her loyalties to her countrymen. Most of all, she defines the fierce courage of a mother who will do anything to protect her family.
Throughout the ordeal, writer-director Zbanic mostly spares viewers the sight of actual violence by locating it just beyond our field of view. Otherwise, she’s merciless in her tense depiction of a wartime tragedy in the making.
The tension begins to abate only in an extended postscript that finds our heroine numbed by all that has happened. As the viewer, you’re likely to feel the same.
Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)
Quo Vadis, Aida? (no MPAA rating) is available through VOD outlets beginning March 15.