Unearthing the painful past of wartime

Posted: April 27, 2007

Grbavica, which to my ear sounds like "Grub-AH-vee-tza," is a Sarajevo neighborhood that saw unspeakable atrocities during the city's bloody siege from 1992 to 1996. The war crimes were such that a decade later many victims still cannot talk about them.

Grbavica is Yasmila Zbanic's stunning portrait of a woman who breaks her silence and in so doing breaks our heart.

Veteran actress Mirjana Karanovic, a more womanly version of Giuletta Masina, is Esma, one in a corps of melancholy, mute women pictured against a colorful flat-woven rug as a lament plays on the soundtrack. This is Esma's support group and no one's talking.

Cut to Esma applying for a waitress job at a loud nightclub where the male customers, and the music, are hard-driving.

Esma assures the owner that she has no children ("Who would have kids these days?"), but it's a lie. She needs the gig, because her job at a shoe factory, her moonlighting as a seamstress and her state stipend all put together don't give her enough to support her teenage daughter, Sara (Luna Mijovic), who needs money for a school field trip.

As Esma, Karanovic is an enormously sympathetic performer whose downturned mouth makes us long for her smile. Esma's playful relationship with Sara is mostly sunny, but clouds are on the horizon. When Sara becomes increasingly involved with a boy whose father was a war martyr, she demands to know more about her own martyred dad.

Because the open-faced Esma closes down at the suggestion of violence or sex, the psychologically astute viewer will be two steps ahead of Zbanic's story. But her characters are so indomitable and involving that their passage from shellshocked victims to resilient survivors has a restorative power. Like its music, the film's emotions proceed from lament to screaming screed to chorus of hope.


Contact movie critic Carrie Rickey at 215-854-5402 or crickey@phillynews.com. Read her blog, "Flickgrrl," at http://go.philly.com/flickgrrl/

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