Years after the near total destruction of Sarajevo in the 1990s, life in the capital of Bosnia-Herzegovina goes on. But for some, like the survivor at the center of Bosnian director Jasmila Zabnic's shattering debut feature, there's no escaping the ghosts of a violent past.
Esma Halilovic is trying to make the best of a hard life in a city still deeply scarred by years of shelling, atrocity and traumatic displays of grotesque inhumanity. In another life, Esma was a university student who planned on becoming a doctor; now she's lucky to find any work at all. Esma takes a job as a cocktail waitress at a raucous Sarajevo nightclub, but only after lying to her shady boss, Mr. Caran (Bogdan Diklic), about the existence of her daughter, Sara (Luna Mijovic), an increasingly out-of-control 12-year-old. Work at the club proves difficult. Esma, who can't bear to be in close proximity to men to begin with, thinks she recognizes faces from an ordeal she suffered during the war and breaks down. The buried truths of Esma's past begin to surface when, in order to get a discounted rate on an upcoming school trip, Sara asks her mother for the document proving that her late father really was what Esma has told her: a shaheed, or Holy War martyr, who died defending Bosnia in the war. Even if Esma succeeds in putting off Sara's demand, she can't escape the romantic interest of Pelda (Leon Lucev), whose past proves entwined with her own. Once a student of economics whose university education also came to an abrupt halt when war broke out, Pelda now works for Mr. Caran. Pelda's recognizes Esma, but it's not from the club: He remembers seeing her at the public post-mortem identifications which are held whenever another mass grave is excavated. Pelda tells her he's looking for his father, who disappeared during the war but whose body was never found. Esma tells him that she was also looking for her father but this, too, is a lie. The truth of Esma's past lie not in the mass graves of Sarajevo, but a lot closer to home: the former prisoner-of-war camp not far from the Grbavica neighborhood where Esma and Sara now live.
Bolstered by a beautifully shaded performance by Karanovic as a woman attempting to escape the torments of her past while securing a future for her daughter, Zbanic's film begs a pretty complex question: Is a love story possible in the aftermath of torture and genocide? The answer appears to be a tentative yes, both on the levels of the film and filmmaking, but it isn't easy: Zbanic sees the possibility only in an ongoing and direct confrontation with her country's tortured past. She counters Pelda's joking assertion that if he remembered everything he'd kill himself with a simple fact stated by a therapist at the women's center where Esma collects her monthly government grant, but refuses to participate in group encounters: There can be no healing without talking.
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