Movies about war are rarely ever movies about war.
Instead of dwelling on the horrors of conflict, they generally focus on the uplifting aspects of time spent on the battlefield — resilience in the face of evil, camaraderie, redemption.
“Quo Vadis, Aida?” is a rare, yet refreshing, exception to the rule.
It brushes away the tired stereotype that war movies need a silver lining or a happy ending to resonate emotionally with viewers. All it needs is the truth.
The movie tells the oft-forgotten story of the Srebrenica massacre of 1995, in which Bosnian Serb forces killed over 7,000 Bosniak boys and men.
It centers on Aida Selmanagic (Jasna Djuricic), a translator working at a United Nations base just outside Srebrenica. The city was declared a UN "safe area,” but the Bosnian Serb army ignored the order and began entering the city, facing little resistance from Western coalition forces.
The local Bosniak population fled the city, with many of them attempting to seek shelter at the UN base where Aida works. However, after the base reaches its full capacity, thousands of civilians are left camping outside of its gates, at the mercy of the encroaching Serb forces.
Stuck outside of the base’s walls are Aida’s husband and her two children. She promptly tries to convince the official in charge of the base, Colonel Karremans (Johan Heldenbergh), to allow them entry, but he and his second in command, Major Franken (Raymond Thiry), repeatedly deny them because they do not want to give the impression of favorable treatment.
In the meantime, the infamous Ratko Mladic (Boris Isakovic), commander of the Bosnian Serb forces, continues on the offensive. After another round of fruitless negotiations with the UN, he leads his men to the gates of the UN base, where they begin rounding up men and boys suspected of taking up arms against his forces.
The focus on the family shines a brutally strong light on the human toll of the fighting in Bosnia.
Djuricic delivers an incredible performance as the titular Aida. Her earnest, embattled pleading with the leadership at the UN base for help securing her family’s safety becomes stronger and less apologetic as the film’s runtime progresses.
She looks and sounds like a mother who is truly on the brink, both from the physical toll of working long hours during a war and the emotional toll of not knowing whether her family will even make it through the end of the week without being captured. Shots of her in isolation work beautifully to immerse viewers, placing them side by side with her on this emotional journey.
Her raw emotion is paralleled by the cold, defeated demeanor of the UN commanders at the base. Their frustration is palpable, with curt, calculated dialogue, especially in response to Adia’s begging, making their inability to do anything to prevent calamity painfully clear. The use of pauses between their lines and sustained eye contact serve only to emphasize their helplessness, as though they await a miracle they know will never come.
The victory of the Bosnian Serbs seems inevitable. The tortured expressions of the Bosniak refugees at the base and the frayed voices of Aida and Karremans are contrasted by the sickening smugness of Mladic and his men. Any semblance of hope for Aida slowly but surely fades, leaving only bitterness, resentment and loss.
Distressingly deterministic, the story of “Quo Vaids, Aida?” can only end in one way — death. Inexcusable, unwarranted death.
Viewers are left with two drastically different portraits of humanity: Aida and Mladic. The former is humanity at its best and most vulnerable, a personification of the bold determination of the human spirit, willing to fight until the very end for those she loves. The latter shows a ruthless disdain for his fellow man, not allowing even the hope and heartache of others to interfere with his vain pursuit of power.
“Quo Vadis, Aida?” shows that war isn’t about weapons, explosions or land. War is about people and their struggle to survive it. (10/10)
“Quo Vadis, Aida?” is nominated for Best International Feature Film, and can be streamed on Prime Video.
To get the day's news and headlines in your inbox each morning, sign up for our email newsletters.