Quo Vadis, Aida? (2020) raises itself above other films about historical tragedies by also focusing on the aftermath of the Srebrenica Massacre. It illustrates the fact that there has been no closure for many who has their lives destroyed by this tragedy. They have been expected to pick themselves up and move on with their lives. Aida is representative of all those women who lost their male family members and friends and then had to live in harmony with those who had either tacitly looked on as Bosnians were murdered or actively supported this massacre.
United Nations translator Aida (Jasna Duričić) is within the Srebrenica safe zone in the middle of a fraught conflict between Serbia and Bosnia. She believes that she is protected by the organisation that she works for, but realises that she is going to face difficulties in ensuring that the men in her family are safe. People do not help her when she requests that they offer her some support and the Serbian army continues to close in as United Nations leaders prove to be ineffective. Aida is helpless in the face of insurmountable obstacles but tries to use what little leverage she has, to bargain with those who are in power.
Aida is a character who seems a lot like the devoted, impossibly stoic matriarchs portrayed by Sally Field in the 1980s but this film has a very different message to something like Places in the Heart (1984). She is somebody who is tireless in her efforts to save her family and avoid disaster, but she is just an individual and she does not have the power to face off against indifferent United Nations officials and fanatical members of the Serbian military. She is already worn down when we first meet her and we see her becoming even more devastated at time goes on. Her initial requests are minimal and her simple desire to keep her husband and children safe, seems so reasonable. It hurts her when she tells friends of hers that she can’t save their sons and we keep wondering why Dutch officials can’t offer three ordinary men protection. Watching her slowly realise that she can’t do anything is heartbreaking but Duričić does not play her as somebody to be pitied and fiercely holds onto her dignity as she negotiates with people who seem to lack humanity. Duričić’s plays her as a practical woman who is afraid to display any hint of sensitivity or emotion in this environment. That makes it so painful when we finally see her let go and she ends up in tears as she knows that there is no turning back.
Apocalyptic imagery frequently appears and we have a foreboding sense that everyone will end up dying. This could be considered unsubtle, but we go into this film with the expectation that it will be about the loss of thousands of lives so it would be dishonest to shy away from that fact. It’s another directorial touch that displays a remarkable bravery and willingness to step outside some of the tropes that tend to define the message movie genre.
The aftermath of the event is still what leaves a lasting impression on audience members. Aida and Munira, Minka Muftić, a Serbian woman who has taken over her house, have to have a brief conversation in which the latter has to make excuses for her occupation of the house and the former passive-aggressively informs her that she expects her to leave. The two have to greet one another with the typical pleasantries and agree to sit down and have a drink together. All of this would seem to be a sign that the two of them can be civil towards one another, but Aida is triggered by seemingly innocuous actions and can’t make it through their conversation without crying. Munira doesn’t see how taking Aida’s biscuit jar could deeply wound her and unceremoniously hands her a bag in which all of her possessions have been grouped together. Both women are on dangerous ground and there is no real permanence in their lives. Munira and her family took the house that had belonged to Aida and her family, but they can just as quickly be removed when she comes back.
There are still clear divisions in this society and while conflicts are often unspoken, they ensure that there is always an undercurrent of tension in place. This film doesn’t end on a reassuring, comforting note and that might be its greatest achievement. It leaves you feeling deeply unsettled and it doesn’t allow you to look away, as you can see this violent, destructive cycle continuing.
Quo Vadis, Aida? is available on digital and on demand from March 15, 2021