3½ stars (out of four)
"Grbavica: The Land of My Dreams" is a film that's both sensitive and a shocker, an unvarnished portrait of a tumultuous relationship between a single mother and her daughter in postwar Sarajevo. It's also a dramatic contemporary fresco of a neighborhood reeking with remembered horror: the tongue-twistingly named Grbavica (pronounced approximately: gerb-ah-vee-tsa), which became a torture center during the Bosnian War ethnic cleansing.
Part of the movie plays like a lower-class Eastern European family drama. Mother Esma (the sweetly anxious-faced Mirjana Karanovic), struggles to make ends meet by taking two jobs (factory and cocktail waitress) to get the money for a class trip for her 12-year-old tomboy daughter Sara (Luna Mijovic) . But the trip is complicated by the movie's larger historical backdrop. Sara thinks her deceased father was a "shaheed," a war martyr, which would entitle her to a discount rate for the trip. Esma can't get that reduction, but the reason why comes only later in the movie.
Meanwhile debuting writer-director Jasmila Zbanic, who exhibits strong gifts with both actors and atmosphere, shows Sara getting in deep with her antagonist-turned-boyfriend Samir (Kenan Catic), a hothead with a gun. And we see Esma in dangerous waters herself at the nightclub, run by a gangster and where one of her co-workers, a sexy gang torpedo named Pelda (Leon Lucev), is interested in her.
There's a melodramatic edge to much of this, and especially to Esma's climactic revelation. Yet Zbanic plays it all very real, endowing her characters with contradictions and her scenes with sharp everyday details. Karanovic, Mijovic, Lucev and the others give superb portrayals.
"Grbavica" won the 2006 Berlin Film Festival's top prize, the Golden Bear, and it was the entry from Bosnia-Herzegovina for the 2006 foreign-language Oscar. Those are high achievements for a first-time director, but Zbanic, who lived through the Bosnian war in Sarajevo, is an unusual talent. Here, she makes us feel the hell her characters once lived through as well as the leftover, stinging pain of today.
Directed and written by Jasmila Zbanic; photographed by Christine A. Maier; edited by Niki Mossbock; art direction by Kemal Hrustanovic; produced by Barbara Albert, Damir Ibrahimovic, Bruno Wagner. In Bosnian, with English subtitles. A Strand Releasing release; opens Friday at Landmark's Century Centre Cinema. Running time: 1:30. No MPAA rating (adult: parents cautioned for language, nudity, violence and mature themes of war and sexuality.
Esma - Mirjana Karanovic
Sara - Luna Mijovic
Pelda - Leon LucevCopyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun