26th 08 - 2008 | 24 comments »

Gender Attitudes in Two Revenge Tales: I Spit on Your Grave (1978) and A Question of Silence (De stilte rond Christine M, 1982)

Directors/Screenwriters: Meir Zarchi/Marleen Gorris

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

During the late second-wave feminist movement in the United States and its slightly lagging reverberations in Europe, two films of female revenge premiered: I Spit on Your Grave (whose innocuous original title was Day of the Woman), a primal, graphically violent film that was lumped into the popular exploitation genre, and the Dutch film A Question of Silence (literally translated as The Silence of Christine M.), an avowed feminist film with a very civilized veneer in which the murder at its center is never explicitly shown.

These two films with a common theme could not look more different. The former film was roundly trounced as the most disgusting film ever made, was banned in several countries, and has lived on in infamy. The latter film, decidedly more “artsy,” cerebral, and, well, foreign, made the festival circuit and quickly vanished. Regardless of their superficial differences, however, these films try to make exactly the same point and in this attempt, fall into a trap of patriarchy that neither of them fully recognizes.

In this essay, I will summarize the plots, attempt to describe the basic gender dynamics at work in the narratives of these two films, reactions to the films, and ways to reframe these narratives to accommodate more advanced ideas about gender roles.

The basic plots

I Spit on Your Grave tells the story of Jennifer Hills (Camille Keaton), a would-be novelist from New York City who rents a riverfront house in a small town as a quiet, isolated place in which to work. Before seeing her temporary home for the first time, she stops for gas and encounters four buddies: ringleader Johnny (Eron Tabor), lackeys Stanley and Andy (Anthony Nichols and Gunter Kleemann), and mildly retarded Matthew (Richard Pace). After a slow, tension-building start, the film kicks into high gear, as the men encounter Jennifer floating in a rowboat, grab her out of it, and take her into the woods so that Matthew can have his first sexual encounter. He hesitates, and for the next 45 minutes, we watch Jennifer raped and sodomized by Johnny and Andy in the woods, stalked to her home, raped by Matthew, and beaten savagely by Andy. Matthew is given the task of killing her, but unbeknownst to the others, he only coats the knife he has been given in blood from her face. After two weeks with no discovery of her body, the men go back to the house, one by one, to investigate. One by one, Jennifer kills them. One is hung, another is castrated and bleeds to death, a third gets an ax in the back, and the fourth is shredded by the propeller of an outboard motor. The film ends with Jennifer motoring down the river, with only the water divided by the bow visible under the closing credits.

A Question of Silence introduces three women, a housewife and mother named Christine (Edda Barends), divorced waitress An (Henriette Tol), and unmarried secretary Andrea (Nelly Firjda) as each goes about her daily routine. One by one, policemen come and take them away. They are being charged with the heinous murder and mutilation of the manager of a women’s clothing boutique. None of the women knew each other or the manager. Psychiatrist Janine van den Bos (Cox Habbema) is engaged to interview the women to determine if they are mentally fit to stand trial. As she goes about her work, Janine learns that each woman has been demeaned by the men in her life. The murder also unfolds episodically throughout the film, and we see four women of different ages and races observe the murder without lifting a hand or voice to stop it. Janine comes to understand the women—even Christine, who can speak but, like Bartleby, prefers not to—and pronounces them sane. The prosecutor can’t understand how a sane woman could have done such a thing, at which point the defendants, Janine, and the women who observed the murder and are now in the gallery of the courtroom, burst into uncontrollable laughter. An outraged prosecutor and panel of judges remove the defendants from the courtroom and hold the trial without them. Janine walks out and faces the bystanders to the murder. All look silently, understandingly, at each other.

Gender dynamics

The period in which these two films were released marked perhaps the lowest point in male/female relations in the 20th century. Legislative gains made by first-wave feminists were being followed up by challenges to the social and psychological order of things. Consciousness raising, which women engaged in throughout the 1970s, helped to uncover the unconscious, internalized structures supporting patriarchy in America and other societies and provided tools for women to wield in their social relationships. Eventually, these challenges to the social order would create a “backlash” men’s movement that would attempt to organize male rights in an effort to achieve balance in the face of uncustomary female assertiveness.

Within this context, it is not surprising that films featuring the savage rape of a woman and the equally savage murders of men by women would appear on the cultural landscape. Yet, both films reflect the still-unconscious understanding of traditional male/female roles.

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In I Spit on Your Grave, a context for Jennifer’s rape is not given. Just like the murder of the shop manager in A Question of Silence, none of the rapists and would-be murderers knew Jennifer or had any personal reason to hold a grudge against her. Her only “crime” is that she is a woman, and the men claim their control over her body almost as a right. It is only when the shoe is on the other foot that the men trot out the usual excuses that hide the real motive for their attack. No one in the audience at that time would have been puzzled about why an attractive woman like Jennifer would be attacked. Then, rape was still seen primarily as a sex act, therefore, the audience might have been puzzled if the men had attacked a homely woman without provocation. This film might have gone some ways toward demonstrating that rape is a hate crime, however, thus performing a service for some audience members at the time and viewers in the ensuing years.

Both movies, and particularly A Question of Silence, take pains to provide a context and justification of sorts for the actions of their female protagonists. Revenge is the basic motive, of course. Audiences of I Spit on Your Grave generally feel that Jennifer’s mass murder of her attackers is justified. The film wisely ends at the completion of the last murder. To bring in the law at this point would remind audiences that Jennifer did not attempt to redress her grievances through the criminal justice system. According to director/writer Zarchi, he was moved to make this film after trying to help a real gang-rape victim seek justice, only to find the justice system unhelpful and unsympathetic. Given his fantasy of the justice of “natural law,” the film could not have ended any other way. (In a strange move that I will in no way try to interpret [sometimes, a cigar is just a cigar], the director cast his own wife as Jennifer.)

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In sharp contrast, A Question of Silence occurs almost entirely under the aegis of the Dutch legal system and serves as a consciousness-raising experience for Janine. None of the accused women resist arrest or deny that they murdered the shop manager. Since there is no apparent motive for the crime or the women’s alliance, the courts assume that the women must be insane. Indeed, Janine’s psychological evaluation seems to be a mere formality. When she comes to see how male prerogatives have denied these women opportunities for financial security, professional advancement, and equality in marriage, she discovers that her own rage matches theirs. Her good marriage to a doctor fractures as the case exposes his self-centered, male entitlements.

Again, Gorris needs to emphasize the complicity of silence about the second-class status of women in Dutch society. She emphasizes that men seem deaf and blind to women’s plight. In one scene, Andrea, who routinely does all the work and research for her boss, gives a reasoned rundown of their company’s unfavorable position in the North African market. A couple of beats later, a man sitting to her right repeats exactly what she said; Andrea’s boss compliments the man on his ideas. The scene would be funny to me if I hadn’t actually witnessed similar scenes over the years and as recently as 2005.

The courtroom scenes exaggerate the buffoonery of the law and its representatives. Certainly the women are angry—so angry that they make a corpse that is unrecognizable and, like Jennifer, engage in castration. Nonetheless, these deliberately ordinary women have contributed to the complicity of silence. Indeed, Christine refuses to speak because, Janine reasons, no one ever listened to her. A Question of Silence may be the first voice of feminist Dutch filmmakers, but aside from refusing to participate in their own trial—like the Chicago 7 refusing to recognize the legitimacy of the court—they give up on trying to educate their society and therefore continue to submit themselves to patriarchy. All they got was a temporarily satisfying revenge. The hint of a revolution to come, however, adds a measure of hope to this first shot in the dark.

Reactions to the films

In a recent review of I Spit on Your Grave, Sam Jordison of the UK’s Channel 4 writes:

“It is strong stuff, not for the weak-stomached. It’s also over the top and the frequently clumsy dialogue (which is sometimes even inaudible) and suspect camerawork mean that this film will never be viewed as high art. However, behind the excesses there is a seriousness of intent from writer-director Meir Zarchi, a willingness to confront boundaries and an incisive questioning of the justification of revenge.”

Roger Ebert’s review of I Spit on Your Grave is extremely negative but very astute about the film’s reflection of cultural norms of the time. He writes:

“A vile bag of garbage named I Spit on Your Grave is playing in Chicago theaters this week. It is a movie so sick, reprehensible and contemptible that I can hardly believe it’s playing in respectable theaters…

“How did the audience react to all of this? Those who were vocal seemed to be eating it up. The middle-aged, white-haired man two seats down from me, for example, talked aloud. After the first rape: ‘That was a good one!’ After the second: ‘That’ll show her!’ After the third: ‘I’ve seen some good ones, but this is the best.’ When the tables turned and the woman started her killing spree, a woman in the back row shouted: ‘Cut him up, sister!’ In several scenes, the other three men tried to force the retarded man to attack the girl. This inspired a lot of laughter and encouragement from the audience.

“I wanted to turn to the man next to me and tell him his remarks were disgusting, but I did not. To hold his opinions at his age, he must already have suffered a fundamental loss of decent human feelings. I would have liked to talk with the woman in the back row, the one with the feminist solidarity for the movie’s heroine. I wanted to ask if she’d been appalled by the movie’s hour of rape scenes. As it was, at the film’s end I walked out of the theater quickly, feeling unclean, ashamed and depressed.”

An anonymous capsule summary of A Question of Silence at Channel 4 says:

“Despite—or because of—the climax, this is a disturbing and sombre movie, raising questions from a severe feminist stance and not suggesting any easy answers. It makes for gripping entertainment thanks to Gorris’s abundant skill in handling a complicated structure and her four central performers.”

Janet Maslin wrote of A Question of Silence:

The feminist cause will not be well served by A Question of Silence, a Dutch film that tells of three women who stomp, kick and pummel to death a male shopkeeper. … Why? Well, apparently because he is a man, and the three shoppers have all been ill treated by other men that they know.

It’s a little skewed to choose reviews from a UK site because gender roles have not moved as far as they have in the United States. Unfortunately, reviews of A Question of Silence are hard to come by, and I was struck by what Sam Jordison had to say.

In assessing I Spit on Your Grave, Jordison stresses the extreme nature of the violence and how that might push an audience’s buttons, as well as whether revenge might be justified in this case. Nowhere does he suggest that there is something to think about with regard to the underlying attitudes of the men in the film. His thoughts are turned to judgment of the woman.

Roger Ebert gets at the underlying assumptions of the film that are so repellent, but fails to appreciate the film as anything but an obscene pile of trash. In his own way, he is trying to suppress what the film has brought to the surface—the animosity, even hatred, between men and women shown at its most extreme.

As for A Question of Silence, I think both reviews also reflect an antipathy for the anger of women in male-dominated societies. Janet Maslin is simply dismissive of the film, perhaps believing the old saw that feminists hate men. Hers is a thoughtless, careless appraisal. While the anonymous reviewer acknowledges that the film is thought-provoking, he or she emphasizes that the film represents an extreme feminist point of view. Historic cultures, such as ancient Greece, always gave the devil her due as evidenced by Medea’s murder of her own children to show her displeasure with her husband. I prefer an “extreme” feminism to one that is more polite and, therefore, fairly toothless.

Moving ahead

Progress has been made to some degree in the cinematic arts and in life. Numerous articles and scholarly works have been devoted to a reappraisal of I Spit on Your Grave, perhaps most notably Michael Kaminiski’s article “Is I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE Really a Misunderstood Feminist Film?” However, feminist film theory still seems to lag in discussing underlying patriarchal attitudes in many of today’s films and forming alternative neutral or female-centric ethics that provide alternatives or eliminate bias altogether.

Younger filmmakers may lead the charge for change. Kevin Smith is quoted in This Film Is Not Yet Rated as saying he’d like films where women are raped and put in danger slapped with an NC-17 rating. Questioning the moral police of the MPAA in itself is an act of rebellion against movies sculpted to reflect a narrow point of view.

Ultimately, filmmakers and filmgoers must make the “you understood” underlying the assumptions they use and witness to assess what points of view are consciously and unconsciously being promoted. For example, if kickass women in films are always beautiful (as, indeed, they are), we haven’t progressed very far from the sentiment expressed in Jerry Harrison’s 1986 song “Man with a Gun”:

A pretty girl, a pretty girl can walk anywhere
All doors open for her
Like a breath of fresh air, her beauty, it precedes her
Wrapped in her beauty, everywhere, she is welcome
First class on the plane, closed door of the club.

In 2010, audiences will be able to see a remake of I Spit on Your Grave. Perhaps that film will be the real litmus test of how far we have or have not come.

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18th 06 - 2007 | 1 comment »

The Hunting Party (1971)

Director: Don Medford

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By Don Jacobson

In the long and honored annals of 1970s anti-Westerns, The Hunting Party doesn’t loom very large, for several good reasons. One is that it was a largely British production shot on shoestring budget in Spain, and although similar circumstances didn’t stop Sergio Leone from making one of the best westerns of all time (1967’s The Good, the Bad and the Ugly), in this case, MGM’s low budget was definitely a bit more indicative of the overall level of artistic endeavor. The other good reason is that it was thoroughly panned upon its release by critics who saw some of the obvious similarities between this film and The Wild Bunch, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Little Big Man, and the aforementioned Leone efforts, and dismissed it as a violent and derivative revenge-film knock-off done quickly by television-oriented hacks.

Well, yes and no. The Hunting Party does indeed suffer from such flaws as over- and underacting, a lack of character development and inadequate explanation of their motives, and a visual style taken straight from such TV westerns as The Big Valley. But it also serves as a fascinating object lesson about a time period (the very early ’70s) when fast-changing social mores and tastes were truly taking hold among moviegoers, and how the major studios, which were still dominated by clueless “establishment” types, struggled to find a formula that would work for them while the future of the entire industry seemed to be hanging in the balance.

One tack they took to find a way to continue to churn out acceptable product for the so-called grindhouse screens, which were still playing an important role in the days before TV saturation reached the point of no return, was to take TV writers, producers, and directors and turn them loose on a big screen where TV censorship did not apply. It was hoped that the movie-going public would find appealing these essentially TV movies with emerging big-screen actors and loaded with sex and violence. Of course, this was a formula that was bound to fail The sex and violence in these kinds of movies always seems horribly gratuitous, the soon-to-be-great actors misused in a form that merely exploited newfound freedoms instead of using them to invent a new kind of socially relevant cinema. It was an attempt by the World War II generation to find a way to connect with the kids before most of the now-legendary crop of ’70s auteur-directors really had a chance to get their hands on the controls. For instance, 1971 was the year Martin Scorsese made Boxcar Bertha for Roger Corman, Steven Spielberg made the TV movie Duel, and George Lucas was writing and directing a remake of his student film THX 1138.

In that respect, probably the most notable thing about The Hunting Party is that it was Gene Hackman’s last appearance before becoming a poster boy for the auteur phenomenon – later that year, he appeared as Det. Jimmy “Popeye” Doyle in William Friedkin’s groundbreaking The French Connection and never went back to playing second-fiddle roles as he does in The Hunting Party, in which he plays Brandt Ruger, a sadistic Old West capitalist. Ruger’s holdings include an entire county, a bank, a railroad, and a wife named Melissa, played by Candice Bergen, who was just coming off the great success of one of the first films to establish just how the cinematic freedoms of the ’70s would eventually be used successfully: Mike Nichols’ Carnal Knowledge (1971).

At the top of the story, it’s revealed that Ruger is impotent. Screenwriter/producer Lou Morheim (best known as the co-creator of the 1960s TV series The Big Valley and The Outer Limits) intercuts a brutal forced sex scene between him and Melissa with scenes of a crew of outlaws led by Frank Calder (Oliver Reed, the real star of the movie) carving up a cow in the desert and eating its meat raw. Of course, it’s Ruger’s cattle they’re killing, another of his possessions. The fact that Ruger doesn’t treat his wife appreciably different from his cattle forms the basis of the story. At its core, The Hunting Party is a very angry anti-Establishment diatribe in the grand tradition of ’70s cinema, and in that respect, maybe even moreso than most. Ruger is such a snarling villain and at the same time such a traditional American capitalist that the message is hard to miss: We like to substitute firepower for love and/or understanding, and will lash out violently at anyone (particularly smart, “uppity” women and others who don’t kowtow to the fascist order of things) who make us feel our spiritual impotence.

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After leaving Melissa hurt and puzzled over his rage at his inability to perform, Ruger heads out on a two-week recreational trip he’s arranged with his millionaire buddies (played by a wonderful collection of some of most durable character actors of era, including Simon Oakland, G.D. Spradlin, and a pair of Brits masquerading as Old West men of means, Ronald Howard and Bernard Kay). They’re all going to get on a train and partake in one of the most egregious “sports” of the day, using long-range rifles to pick off buffalo as the train parks in the midst of a herd. Also on board are a bevy of hookers. Since he can’t perform sexually, Ruger gets his thrills by burning his, an Asian woman, with a lit cigar – a comment on The Man’s subjugation of other races.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, Melissa goes off to help her friend teach youngsters in a one-room schoolhouse. No sooner does she get there than Calder swoops in abd kidnaps her because he needs someone to teach him to read to be able to pull off his next heist. As the outlaws gallop off with her in tow, we’re introduced to the gang, again, another crop of great ’70s character actors, including Mitch Ryan, huntingparty3%20edit.JPGWilliam Watson and, L. Q. Jones, who appeared in fiveSam Peckinpah films). Right off, she’s sexually attacked in a moving wagon by Hog (Jones), and Calder takes his sweet time before riding back to kick him to the ground. This is when we get our first real introduction to Oliver Reed’s Frank Calder. Unfortunately for him, Reed’s performance is awful. The British actor is unconvincing using a clipped, dumbed-down Old West accent as Morheim tried to turn him into a semi-silent Clint Eastwood clone. In some movies, such as the Ken Russell films The Devils and Tommy and as one of the Three Musketeers (1978), Reed’s large frame and larger-than-life depictions of rage and humor were well used. His style was dark, complex, and often disturbing, and in a better-written western they may have worked. But here, he alternately underplays and is allowed to go over the top.

When Ruger, still aboard the hunting train, gets word Melissa has been kidnapped, he turns into a killing machine bent on revenge. Instead of sympathizing with her plight, as voice-of-reason crony Gunn (Oakland) urges, Ruger only spits bile. In his best lines of the movie, Hackman immediately rejects the idea he could ever take his wife back, saying, “He’ll give her a kid, and I’ll have a little outlaw bastard running around the house.” “Jesus Christ, Brandt,” replies a shocked Gunn, “have a little respect for Melissa!” “Well, what the hell do you think he’s going to do with her? Sing church hymns? He’ll pass her around. When he’s through with that, maybe 15 or 20 of them, he’ll accept 40 or 50,000 dollars of my money. No thank you very much. I’m not going to have my Virginia-educated, butter-wouldn’t-melt-in-her-mouth wife used like a whore, then I have to take her back pregnant with a bastard!” At this point, it seems he’s out for revenge not only on Calder, but on his own wife as well, a real case of blaming the victim.

He convinces his buddies to join him in a effort to use the telescoped buffalo rifles that he had procured to hunt down the outlaw gang instead, thus making up for not possessing enough manliness to take on the hardened gang one-on-one by being able to pick them off from safe distances hundreds of yards away. This seems to be a fairly cogent comment not only on emotional and moral impotence, but also on the Vietnam-era reliance on “clean” high-tech weaponry, which changed the moral equation of warfare from one of a matter of honor (like hunting animals) to one of efficient massacres (hunting humans), though it could be argued that this depersonalization began with The Bomb.

Much of the rest of the film is about Ruger methodically tracking Calder’s gang down and picking them off in blood-gushing fashion one by one as they are mown down by weapons and attackers they never even see. At one point, one of the thugs even declares, “Who are those guys?” in a line and situation lifted directly from Butch Cassidy. Ruger has Calder is his sights several times, but lets him go for reasons that are never entirely explained, except that it sets up the ending. As the bloodletting becomes more and more cruel and gratuitous, his cronies begin questioning Ruger’s leadership and sanity, but stick with him out of an old-fashioned and ultimately disastrous sense of honor. The Vietnam parallels are hard to miss.

The other main thread then becomes the inevitable romance between the kidnapped Melissa and Calder, who, through long passages that again include a rape scene (that makes three), eventually tames the wildcat and wins her heart as she teaches him the alphabet by drawing letters in the sand with a stick. Calder is a good crystallization of the ’70s cinematic ethos of the antihero, a man with a good heart who’s doing bad things partly because he himself is a victim. It is rather thrilling to see Reed, whose tumultuous personal life was a living embodiment of counterculture rebellion, attempt to give meaning to the dignity of an illiterate outcast who has more honor than the “honorable” establishment figure hunting him down. The fact that he is doing so in a Eurotrash exploitation movie only makes it more delicious. He is an actor whose quirky list of contributions to both cinema and the British counterculture has never been truly celebrated like it needs to be.

The ending, which I won’t reveal, is exceedingly downbeat, as was also the tenor of the times. There is no resolution of the moral conflicts, only a realization that not dealing with our shortcomings as a nation of warmongers and greedy capitalists will result in a lot more heartache, especially for the women and nonconformists of the world. l

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15th 03 - 2007 | no comment »

Grbavica: The Land of My Dreams (2006)

Director: Jasmila Zbanic

2007 European Union Film Festival

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

War is a popular subject for films, one that normally is tackled with patriotic fervor, nostalgia, brute realism, or gallows humor, depending on the year of the film’s release, the mood of the audience, and the temperament of the creative team. Films that deviate a bit from the expected, such as the “opposing” side narratives of All Quiet on the Western Front (1930) or Letters from Iwo Jima (2006), are always remarked upon, usually with interest. There is a face of war, however, that normally stays hidden—the civilians, and particularly the women either left behind or caught up in the fighting.

The first war film I can remember that seemed to have a genuinely feminine point of view—as opposed to an idealization or demonization of women—was Hal Ashby’s Coming Home. Not coincidentally, that film, which talked about the difficult adjustment of a Vietnam vet and the woman who loves him after his tour of duty, was based on a story by a woman (Nancy Dowd). Now the toll the 1990s’ Bosnian War took on its female civilians is brought vividly to life in Grbavica, a film coproduced, directed, written, and photographed by women.

The film opens with close-ups of apparently sleeping women draped across each other on a crowded floor. One is reminded of dead bodies in a heap, and that inference is, I’m sure, intentional. The slow-panning camera rests on Esme (Mirjana Karanovic), and next we are taken inside her life. We are brought into a nightclub pulsating with rock music and writhing grbavica%20club.jpgbodies. Esme, who could be a soccer mom in the United States, seems out of place as she weaves through the crowd, whispers in a man’s ear, and is directed to an office. There, Saran (Bogan Diklic), the club’s owner, asks her some questions about her availability for working nights and whether she has kids. No problem, Esme answers. No kid, either. “You have to be crazy to have kids these days,” offers a cynical Saran. He asks her to pick a game for him to place a bet on. She unconventionally picks an away game for his team. He decides to take her advice to see if she will be lucky for him. To a man like Saran, women are mascots, sexual conveniences, and favors offered to friends.

Cut to Esme’s apartment and a shot of her teenaged daughter Sara (Luna Mijovic). Mother and daughter clown around, tickling each other and chasing about the flat. Sara pins Esme to the floor. Esme, suddenly nervous and panicked, abruptly orders Sara to cut it out. This is the first of many clues to a secret Esme has, one that will become harder and harder to keep as the film progresses.

Esme is shown at work at the nightclub, making clothes for friends, and beginning a flirtation with a man named Pelda (Leon Lucev) who does “things” for Saran. Pelda drives Esme home from work one day because they both live in Grbavica. He says she looks familiar; though it 20060220201703_5-grbavica.jpgsounds it, this is not a standard pick-up line. He asks Esme if she ever went to post-mortem identifications. Yes. “Who are you looking for?”he asks. “I found him. My father,” replies Esme. Pelda, too has been looking for his father among the corpses of recently exhumed mass graves in and around Grbavica. Once he was sure he had found his father and talked and cried to him. Suddenly, a woman came up and claimed the body was her father. She identified him the same way Pelda did—black boots and wrist watch. “You know, I got really close to that man,” said Pelda. “I even went to his funeral.”

Sara is having her own difficulties in school. She gets into a violent fist fight with a boy who thinks she should not be playing soccer, a boy’s sport. When a teacher breaks them up, he tells them to bring their parents to school. Sara claims that her mother is ill. “What about your father?” he asks. One of her classmates offers that Sara has no father. “My father is a shaheesh,” says Sara, a martyr to the Bosnian cause. When a school trip is announced for which Esme will have to come up with 200 euros, Sara says all she needs are the papers that prove her father was a shaheesh to avoid the fee. Esme finds one excuse after another not to produce the papers. Eventually, she comes clean with Sara about who fathered her, in an emotionally intense scene in which she batters Sara repeatedly.

Esme’s secret isn’t hard to guess. The domestic situations aren’t unusual. There are even moments when we are sure the film will devolve into extreme violence or tragedy. But the truth is that the tragedy has already occurred and is still very alive in the women (and Pelda) who inhabit this film. The female creative team on Grbavica, I think, is responsible for avoiding the easy clichés that are so common in mainstream war films by men. For example, Esme goes to a community center to receive her welfare check, but is silent during the confessions of other women about the horrors they faced in the war. In one particularly unsettling scene, a drawn, pale woman revisits her painful eviction in the middle of the night while another woman chuckles and then laughs uncontrollably. Nobody says a word to her about stopping and, in fact, they join her.

Besides the unusual tale of war’s aftermath, what lifts this film well above the ordinary are the extraordinary performances of the entire cast. Mirjana Karanovic inhabits Esme as though the part were written especially for her. Young Luna Mijovic couldn’t be more perfect as the loving but confused daughter who alternates between scarily violent and sweetly childish with complete ease and believability. Sarajevo itself is a source of fascination, as criminal plotting happens in sight of a mosque and the sound of microphoned prayer.

In the end, Sara, who hates folk music, joins her classmates in singing a folk song to Sarajevo. Somehow, this act seems both healing for her and a foreboding reminder that nationalism lives, ready to erupt in the cyclical convulsions that plague the Balkans.


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