Films about war crimes have a tendency to be so morose that the experience watching them is not one you would want to revisit. The horrors inflicted up a group of people are so heinous and graphic that it is seered into your memory. In contrast, Jasmila Zbanic’s Quo Vadis, Aida? avoids the carnage and puts the psychological toll on full display.
Aida (Jasna Duricic) works as a United Nations liaison as an interpreter in 1995 during the Bosnian War against the Serbs. No longer in her role as a teacher, she translates Bosnian and English between the locals and the UN command. After being declared a UN safezone, Aida’s city of Srebenica has nonetheless been occupied by the Serbian Army and General Ratko Mladic (Boris Isakovic).
The UN offers to shelter the citizens at their UN camp, but only a few thousand enter the base with multitudes more stuck outside the gates. Aida has one of her sons inside and one of her sons and husband outside. Aida continues to use her power to cross gates and around lines to attempt to protect her family.
Eventually, the inevitability of what is truly happening begins to dwell. While the buses of women and children are reaching their destination, vans full of injured aren’t making it to the hospital. The trucks full of men aren’t coming back. The UN forces are either unwilling or unable to help in any significant way. Aida is there to translate the Serbian wishes through the voices of UN helmets. Her face drops upon every word she doesn’t wish to translate. Her limited power can only do so much when she puts her whole efforts into trying to save her family.
The film lives and dies in the hands of Duricic. She is good at her job, but it pulls her away from her true purpose, but she never deflects her duty to translate. She is in a constant state of hurried mania, attempting to find her family, communicate between forces, pleading with higher ups and all the while acting as the voice for a people. Her performance drives the film forward. Aid is granted this coat of invincibility just because she speaks two languages, but uses her slightest bit of power to save the ones she loves.
Zbanic directs the film with the lightest of touches. While viewing the film, I kept expecting the inevitable visceral death or scene of brutality to ram home what was happening. Zbanic is too intelligent to stoop to cheap theatrics and instead leaves it up to the audience to imagine the unseen horrors. No deaths occur onscreen and General Mladic comes across as magnanimous. But, the truth is all to apparent, and to stylize death is to cheapen the humanity of the victims. No one is dehumanized and the occasional flashback show exactly how human and normal everyone was before the war.
Quo Vadis, Aida? proves that a film about a war crime does not have to be filled with violence, but can be more about the impact the violence has and doing everything to avoid it. The dynamite duo of Zbanic and Duricic should feel a sense of accomplishment they have shown for the Bosnian people to show such a terrible event with such humanity.