Awash in daily news of mass savagery, collective memory grows short. We feel for the women of Afghanistan, but who these days remembers the war widows and rape victims of the 1992-1995 civil war that sent Yugoslavia to hell and brought it back a divided country? Now comes the young Bosnian writer-director Jasmila Zbanic to remind us of one of the more devastating consequences of ethnic cleansing, a Serbo-Croat euphemism for genocide that has since morphed into a gruesomely useful term to describe mass killings from Rwanda to Iraq. Titled with heavy irony, Grbavica: The Land of My Dreams, which carried off a Golden Bear at last year's Berlin Film Festival, is not the first movie to be made about the rape of more than 20,000 Bosnian women by Serbo-Montenegrin forces. But it is no less haunting for being the least graphic, in part because Zbanic's subject is not violence itself, but the way its cruel aftermath washes through the everyday lives of those who survived.
Grbavica is set in the eponymous Sarajevo neighborhood that was formerly a Serbian internment camp and now houses a large concentration of women who subsist on slim government handouts and bitter memories. The word grbavica also means "woman with a hump," an evocative image that Zbanic harnesses to symbolize the burden carried by Esma, a careworn, middle-aged single mother played with matter-of-fact directness by Mirjana Karanovic, a veteran star of the films of Bosnian director Emir Kusturica. Notwithstanding her sad brown eyes, the tone is far from lugubrious. We see Esma giggling at a local women's center, then rough-housing happily on her living room floor with her 12-year-old daughter Sara (played by the enchanting sprite Luna Mijovic). At first the movie plays its cards close to its chest: When Sara playfully pins her mother's hands to the floor and she suddenly stiffens in pain and grows agitated, it seems as though we're in for a cancer weepy. In fact there's a long-held secret, masked by a tacitly agreed upon fiction about the identity of Sara's missing father, that gnaws away at this loving but scrappy mother-daughter intimacy, driving them both to the point of crisis.
While Sara ratchets up the risky behavior with a wild boy and a gun, Esma, in an effort to make extra money to finance her daughter's class trip, wears herself out in two jobs that hold up a mirror not just to her plight, but that of a society disfigured by its brutal wars. By day she works in a shoe factory, sustained by its all-female workforce united in common suffering. By night she serves drinks in a bar whose masculine sexual vibe, hitched to openly condoned violence, reduces her to a tangle of pain and rage.
Grbavica is neither formally nor intellectually a sophisticated work. Its politics come with a very small p, and Zbanic's youthful faith in the notion that the truth shall set you free verges on the reductive when applied to a country still reeling from the use of sex as a tool of political domination. At times her characters can barely breathe without giving voice to wider social conflicts. Straining plausibility, Esma strikes up a tentative romance with, of all things, a sensitive hit man. But Grbavica is a womanly movie in the best sense: Zbanic has a deeply feminine sense of how crisis gets filtered through the domesticity of daily life. She is no wuss, though: Before we hear the two final sounds, a keening voice of despair followed by the hopeful trill of a bus full of schoolchildren going on vacation, there comes a shattering confession of maternal love and hatred, the legacy of a generation of women who, day after day, must carry their humps on their backs, and shrug them off in the name of the future.
Get the Film & TV Newsletter
Stay up to date on the best new movies with our critics' latest reviews, interviews and trailers for the films coming to a theater near you each week.