“Quo Vadis, Aida?” has the narrative beats and the intensity of a classic thriller: a cornered protagonist, an implacable villain, a breathless pace, hair’s-breadth escapes. The difference is that the setting is the Bosnian city of Srebrenica in July 1995, and everything here actually happened. That turns Jasmila Zbanic’s film from entertainment to tragic drama — a white-knuckle portrayal of one woman’s resourcefulness in the face of bureaucratic inertia and certain death. Recently nominated for this year’s international film Oscar and available at the Kendall Square theater and some online platforms, it’s an overpowering experience that lingers long in the memory and the heart.
Jasna Djuricic is superb in the title role of a middle-aged ex-schoolteacher working as a translator for the UN peacekeeping forces in Srebrenica. Aida is capable, quick-thinking, slow to scare — but wise enough to panic when the time comes. Like a handful of other Bosnian Muslims in town, mostly women, she sees the arrival of Serbian forces led by General Ratko Mladic (Boris Isokovic) as prelude to the worst fears of genocide. The general has bread for the crowds of townspeople who have fled to the UN military base, and he has honey in his words — he even has a dedicated videographer for propaganda purposes. But every one of the men under his command has murder in his eyes.
Aida just has her husband, Nihad (Izudin Bajrovic), the school’s former principal, and her two grown sons, Hamdija (Boris Ler) and Sejo (Dino Bajrovic), the latter a sweet 17-year-old heartbreaker. Under no illusions about the invaders’ intentions toward the men of Srebrenica, she is desperate to get them out of the mob waiting outside the base’s gates and into the mob inside the base. As Aida’s options dwindle over the course of the film — as couples are separated and led onto buses that return empty, as boys and men are marched off into the woods, and as Mladic’s soldiers push crudely into the encampment to look for suspected enemy fighters — her efforts to save her family become quicker, harder, more impassioned. The mask of professionalism slips and then gets tossed as dead weight. Their survival is her mission, and it purifies her.
Spoiler alert here. The genocide in Srebrenica of July 1995 claimed over 8,000 lives in 10 days. Thousands of women were raped. It was a final horror in a century filled with horror; to read witness accounts is to confront fresh depths of human depravity. “Quo Vadis, Aida?” — the title translates colloquially as “What now, Aida?” and it resonates on both immediate and historical levels — personalizes an unthinkable event and invites us to imagine it happening much closer to home. Writer-director Zbanic often simply turns her camera on a crowd scene, outside the camp or, notably, in a nightclub flashback during more normal times. She pans the individual faces, which stare into the camera, asking only to be seen, recognized, valued. Some people become familiar over the course of the movie. They look like us. They are us.
“Quo Vadis, Aida?” lays the blame for the massacre at Srebrenica squarely at the feet of both the Serbian Army — Ratko Mladic was sentenced to life imprisonment in 2017 after a long trial at The Hague — and a UN high command that promised airstrikes against the general’s forces and failed to come through. Just as damningly, the Dutch officers led by Colonel Karremans (Johan Heldenbergh) and Major Franken (Raymond Thiry) are obdurate followers of The Rules, no matter how much they have bonded with Aida in recent months and no matter how many people they know will die. (In one scene, the colonel literally hides in his office, refusing to come out.) If Zbanic’s movie humanizes the victims and their courage, it does the same for moral cowardice.
The tension builds to an unbearable pitch and is ultimately resolved; I can say no more other than to note that Djuricic’s performance compresses itself into a single emotion in a way I’ve never really seen captured on film. The scenes that follow are quiet, full of immeasurable sorrow, and quite complex, an aftermath that intertwines revenge and resignation, forbearance and even forgiveness, if not for this generation, then maybe for the next. Life goes on, says “Quo Vadis, Aida?,” but you must never, ever forget. After seeing this movie, you won’t.
QUO VADIS, AIDA?
Written and directed by Jasmila Zbanic. Starring Jasna Djuricic. At Kendall Square and available on Amazon Prime, Fandango Now, and Vudu. In Serbo-Croatian, Bosnian, Dutch, Serbian, and English, with subtitles. Unrated (as R: depictions of genocide).