Regular readers should recognize high praise when I say that the title that immediately comes to mind for comparing Quo Vadis, Aida? is Sophie’s Choice. This film truly devastates. Like the Meryl Streep drama that brings audiences to tears, Quo Vadis, Aida? is a tough yet truly moving film. Aida is Bosnia-Herzegovina’s nominee in the Oscar race for Best International Feature, and it could be a wild card. One watches Quo Vadis, Aida? with one’s stomach in a knot and one’s teeth clenched, ready for the worst. This tautly crafted film leaves one breathless.
The Sophie’s Choice likeness arises not through some life-altering decision for Aida, the film’s titular character. Rather, it pertains to a choice that someone else makes for her. Sophie’s Choice echoes throughout Quo Vadis, Aida? in its resonant sense of loss. The film aches as Aida (Jasna Ðuričić) puts every effort of her being into saving her two sons. She may have a favourite, but the only outcome she accepts is safety for them both.
Aida’s quest becomes more urgent by the minute. An English teacher in the town of Srebrenica, Aida works as a translator for the United Nations. The position gives her unique access and insight amid the escalating conflict in Bosnia. It’s 1995 and Srebrenica is supposed to be a safe zone from the Serbian army moving in on the town and displacing residents violently. However, as residents crowd the factory that doubles as a UN refugee camp, the solution is too little, too late for the 30,000 Bosnians seeking safety. The film pulses with a race for survival that remains palpably suspenseful even though the true horrors of the genocide have surfaced.
A New Auteur
Stories of the Bosnian genocide are not easy to dramatize. The context is complicated and the history is murky. One risks oversimplifying the story by distilling it too much or overwhelming the viewer while trying to capture it all. The story is in good hands, however, with director Jasmila Žbanić. She’s already proven herself an emerging talent on the festival circuit with 2006’s Golden Bear winner Grbavica and the extraordinary 2013 drama For Those Who Can Tell No Tales. Quo Vadis, Aida? marks a director truly hitting her stride and announcing herself thunderously. Anyone who wasn’t paying attention to Žbanić will be now.
The director handles the complex story with sensitivity and empathy. As with her previous films, Quo Vadis, Aida? gives voice to those who were silenced. But this drama has more dramatic heft and more confidence. It takes a side. This raw and tightly focused human drama conveys observes the consequences of passivity in the face of evil.
Žbanić knows what she has on her hands in Ðuričić. Just like Alan J. Pakula did in Sophie’s Choice, she knows the horror that an anguished mother’s face conveys. Much of Quo Vadis, Aida? holds tightly on Ðuričić as Aida translates the rote platitudes of the peacekeepers and recognises the dire situation. She awakens and emerges as an active force amid impending doom. Her dramatic pauses between lines carry great weight as she listens to the peacekeeper’s lines and hesitates before delivering translations. On one hand, she knows they’re lying to the people of Srebrenica and she’s guilty by proxy in failing to sound the alarm. On the other hand, Aida recognizes that good behaviour is her only chance to save her family. With searing force, Ðuričić conveys the awful hell of the bind in which Aida finds herself.
Keeping the Peace
Perhaps most provocative is the film’s portrayal of the United Nations. As Aida works frantically to secure safety from her family, and as everyone in the camp recognizes the escalating danger that surrounds them, the UN peacekeepers remain depressingly docile. They’re more concerned with protocol than for the well-being of the lives they were assigned to protect—even if “protection” is just by proxy as they endeavour to avoid letting the situation escalate. Remember, this is one year after Rwanda.
The film is especially shrewd in its casting choices for the UN peacekeepers. Belgian actor Johan Heldenbergh (The Broken Circle Breakdown) captures the rigidity of Colonel Karremans, the man overseeing the camp. While he holds strong to policy and defers to protocol at the expense of lives, the performance critiques a system that offers security largely through symbolic gestures alone. He explodes—briefly, a crack in the stiff upper lip—when the UN continually hampers his requests for aid. Similarly, Žbanić peppers the security perimeter with young actors who look fresh from their high school graduation. They’re no match for the tougher, rougher Serbs who approach the gate. They have no authority.
The passivity that surrounds Aida makes Ðuričić’s performance especially devastating. The line that lingers most throughout her ordeal is a simple admission that recognizes what’s to come. “Then at least we tried,” Aida shudders. Trying is the least one can do, which makes the absence of action in Quo Vadis, Aida? infuriatingly powerful.