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Quo Vadis, Aida?

Following a woman's quest to save her family during the Bosnian War, this 2021 Oscar nominee is taut, rigorous, resonant and unforgettable.
By Sarah Ward
February 17, 2022
By Sarah Ward
February 17, 2022

Films about war are films about wide-ranging terror and horror: battles that changed lives, deaths that reshaped nations, political fights that altered the course of history and the like. But they're also movies about people first, foremost and forever: folks whose everyday existence was perpetually shattered, including those lost and others left to endure when hostilities cease. Quo Vadis, Aida? is firmly a feature about both aspects of war. It homes in on one town, Srebrenica, in July 1995 during the 1992–95 Bosnian War, but it sees devastation and a human toll so intimate and vast in tandem that heartbreak is the only natural response. A survivor of the war herself, writer/director Jasmila Žbanić (Love Island, For Those Who Can Tell No Tales) knows that combat and conflict happens to ordinary men and women, that each casualty is a life cut short and that every grief-stricken relative who remains will never forget their magic ordeal — and she ensures that no one who watches Quo Vadis, Aida? can forget the Srebrenica massacre, or the fact that 8372 civilians were killed, either.

A teacher-turned-interpreter, the eponymous Aida Selmanagic (Jasna Đuričić, My Morning Laughter) is Žbanić's eyes and ears within the demilitarised safe zone established by Dutch UN peacekeepers. The film doesn't adopt her exact point of view aesthetically — we see Aida, and plenty; Quo Vadis, Aida? wouldn't be the same without the tenacity and insistence that radiates from her posture and gaze — but it lives, breathes, feels, roves and yearns as she does. What she translates and for who around the UN base varies but, as she roves, she's primarily a channel between innocents scared for their lives and the bureaucracy endeavouring to keep the Bosnian Serb Army away. She visibly feels the weight of that task, whether speaking for the injured, scared and hungry all crammed into the facility or passing on instructions from her superiors.

Aida has a mother's and wife's motivations, however: above all else, she wants her husband Nihad (Izudin Barjović, Father), a school principal, to be with her and to be safe — and the same for their sons Hamdija (Boris Ler, Full Moon) and Sejo (Dino Barjović, Sin), obviously. It's a mission to even get them in the base, with Colonel Karremans (Johan Heldenbergh, The Hummingbird Project) and his offsider Major Franken (Raymond Thiry, The Conductor) determined to not show any appearances of favouritism, especially with so many other refugees pleading to be allowed in outside. But Aida hustles, including getting Nihad sent to negotiations with Serbian General Ratko Mladić (Boris Isaković, Last Christmas) as a town representative. And as the General's brash, cocky, swaggering troops start escorting out the base's inhabitants and putting them onto buses depending upon their gender following those talks, Aida makes every desperate move she can to save her family.

Quo Vadis, Aida? equally chronicles and shares Aida's reaction to the chaos and trauma around her. With Nihad, Hamdija and Sejo's lives at stake, the peacekeepers that Aida is helping refusing to assist by expanding the protections she enjoys to her loved ones, and the UN making moves that bow to Mladić — refusing to act otherwise, more accurately — Žbanić's film was always going to bustle forward in lockstep with its protagonist's emotional rollercoaster ride. That said Quo Vadis, Aida? is also an exacting movie in laying bare the complexities bubbling within the base, and the broader scenario. Unflinchingly, it sees how ineffective the UN's actions are, as ordered from far away with no sense of the reality on the ground. It recognises how outnumbered the peace effort is in Srebrenica, too. It spies the ruthlessness of the General and his forces, as was destined to happen when given even the slightest leeway. And it also spots how determined Aida is to safeguard her family, all while hurrying around thousands of others in the same precarious circumstances but without the possibility of anyone even trying to pull strings in their favour.

Unlucky not to win the Best International Feature Oscar in 2021, and also nominated for the Best Director BAFTA the same year — losing to Another Year at the former and to Nomadland's Chloé Zhao at the latter — Quo Vadis, Aida? is a taut, rigorous, resonant, unshakeably potent balancing act. Žbanić's narrative works with such a wealth of moving parts, and such a mass of complications within everything that the storyline juggles, that the result is an intricately packed powderkeg of a movie. And, it's a relentless onslaught, always hurtling along like its lead. Quo Vadis, Aida? doesn't flit by too quickly or fail to give attention to everything that needs it, though. Rather, it's an urgent picture poised around something that happened more than a quarter-century back, but will forever demand to be given weight and gravity — as the murder of so many people always should.

Žbanić's regular cinematographer Christine A Maier perfects her own balancing act as well, her imagery rushing with Aida but eschewing lensing with anything but a grim, plain, naturalistic air. To look at, the combination is intense and also grounded, evoking the sensation of stepping into the scene as closely as possible. As edited by Cold War and Never Gonna Snow Again's Jarosław Kamiński, similarly with a pace and rhythm to match Aida's, the film is also tense to a heart-pounding, sweat-inducing, nerve-shredding degree. Quo Vadis, Aida? takes its title from the traditional Christian story that states that the apostle Peter, fleeing crucifixion in Rome, passed the risen Jesus and asked him "whither goest thou?"; in Latin, quo vadis? The answer he received: to Rome to be crucified again. Viewers don't need to know that tale going in to feel the depth of the movie's probing, but Žbanić couldn't have given her feature a more meticulous moniker.

Amid the empathy and clear-eyed candour that marks the unforgettable Quo Vadis, Aida? again and again — as Aida peers through the barbed-wire fencing keeping not-so-fortunate townsfolk out, speaks words on behalf of Karremans and Franken she knows will prove false, and begs for anyone's assistance — Đuričić is remarkable. She's fierce, brave, resolute and resilient while wading through practicalities, horrors and stolen moments of hope alike, and every fibre of her being conveys Aida's torturous emotional journey. Traversing every move with her, and every feeling, is simply a foregone conclusion. That's as true in Quo Vadis, Aida?'s epilogue, too, which layers the film's despair and outrage with a survey of the reality for the genocide's survivors. Žbanić once again walks an unnerving tightrope with mastery: whither goest thou indeed.

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