In competition at the 77th Venice Film Festival, Jasmila Zbanic gives us, with her Quo vadis, Aida?, a powerful and deeply painful story. And in order to stage the war and the personal drama of the protagonist, a skilful minimalist mise en scene proves to be the director’s best ally, who, in turn, knows how to reach the audience by skilfully avoiding any rhetoric. Except for a few missteps as we approach the finale.
Run, Aida, run
The only – in her own way – Austrian representative in the competition at the 77th Venice Film Festival, Bosnian filmmaker Jasmila Zbanic collaborated with no less than eight countries to make Quo vadis, Aida?, her newest work, in which she once again tells the story of her beloved Bosnia, just as she did in 2006 with Grbavica, which was presented in competition at the Berlinale, where it won the much-coveted Golden Bear.
Another important chapter of history, then, for a series of stories inspired by real events. We find ourselves in the Bosnian town of Serebrenica, in July 1995. Aida (an extraordinary Jasna Duricic) is a former teacher working as an interpreter for the United Nations. In order for her husband and two children to be saved, she tries hard to involve them as collaborators in negotiations with the Serbs. But what will be the real risks to be taken? What will be the price to be paid?
Eight nations engaged in the production of Quo vadis, Aida?, then, including, precisely, also Austria, which saw the production company Coop99, founded by Barbara Albert, Antonin Svoboda, Jessica Hausner and Martin Gschlacht, at the forefront. For the occasion, camerawoman Christine A. Maier took care of the cinematography. And in a small role also appears actress Edita Malovcic – Serbian naturalised Austrian – who had become internationally known thanks to Barbara Albert’s Northern Skirts, also presented in Venice in 1999. But let’s return to the film.
Jasmila Zbanic gives us, with her Quo vadis, Aida?, a powerful and deeply painful story. At the heart of the drama: a people, so many peoples forced to live the burden of the war on their own shoulders and obliged in every way to hate each other despite a past of peaceful living together; a strong accusation against the UN itself; a woman, a mother and wife and her commitment on behalf of her nation. Torn between her duties as a translator and her various attempts to get her loved ones to safety, Aida runs around, not knowing how to divide herself. And without failing to help those who, in turn, need support.
The Aida staged here, then, practically never stops. And with her the camera, focused almost entirely on her character, which carries practically the entire feature film on its shoulders. In order to stage the personal drama of the protagonist, a skilful minimalist mise en scene proves to be the best ally of Jasmila Zbanic, who, in turn, knows how to reach the audience by wisely avoiding any rhetoric, making courageous choices – such as that of keeping massacres and shootings exclusively off-screen (Lang and Haneke know something about this) and – with the exception of sporadic use of shoulder cameras – avoiding any directorial virtuosity.
The result is practically a punch that hits you in the stomach. And history – as it happened less than thirty years ago – comes, in this Quo vadis, Aida?, merciless, loud and clear. Many, then, will rediscover the talent of Zbanic from Grbavica. And they will also be pleasantly impressed. This, at least, as far as the first three quarters of the feature are concerned. Yes. Because, in fact, if on the one hand the director was able to deal with the issue with a rational and mature gaze, on the other hand she did not hesitate to occasionally get carried away by emotions, inevitably ending up making some real stylistic missteps.
Just think, for instance, of a dreamlike moment in which Aida relives a dance party and the camera does not hesitate – complete with slow motion – to linger excessively on the faces of each individual character. And it is precisely this excessive lingering on the drama, on the pain that explodes in the finale, proving to be decidedly redundant and superfluous. The images of the corpses – now reduced to piles of bones – killed by the Serbs speak for themselves. Going further would mean emphasising again and again a concept that has already been set out more than exhaustively.
And here emotionality played a bad trick, causing a very good film to “collapse” at the climax. A film that, however, despite everything, succeeds overall in its intentions and let even think of a probable Coppa Volpi.
Original title: Quo vadis, Aida?
Directed by: Jasmila Zbanic
Country/year: Bosnia and Herzegovina, Austria, Romania, Netherlands, Germany, Poland, France, Norway, Turkey / 2020
Running time: 104’
Cast: Jasna Duricic, Izudin Bajrovic, Boris Isakovic, Johan Heldenbergh, Raymond Thiry, Boris Ler, Dino Bajrovic, Emir Hadzihafizbegovic, Edita Malovcic, Joes Brauers, Reinout Bussemaker, Teun Luijkx, Ermin Sijamija, Alban Ukaj, Rijad Gvozden, Juda Goslinga, Ermin Bravo, Sanne den Hartogh, Micha Hulshof, Emina Muftic
Screenplay: Jasmila Zbanic
Cinematography: Christine A. Maier
Produced by: Deblokada, coop99 filmproduktion, Digital Cube, N279 Entertainment, Razor Film, Extreme Emotions, Indie Prod, Tordenfilm, TRT, ZDF Arte, ORF, BHRT