A loving, unmarried young couple failing to conceive are driven apart when one of them finds solace in religion in Bosnian director Jasmila Zbanic’s “On the Path,” a restrained but thoroughly cinematic drama that reps an impressive improvement on the helmer’s debut pic, Golden Bear winner “Grbavica.” Complex without being complicated, this beautifully played second feature assures Zbanic’s bragging rights as one of the region’s top helmers. Aided by critical acclaim and possible fest accolades, the pic should do choice biz in high-end Euro arthouses, though its thorny subject matter might scare off less adventurous U.S. distribs.
Pretty flight attendant Luna (Zrinka Cvitesic) and her b.f., ground-control worker Amar (Leon Lucev, the bouncer from “Grbavica”), have been trying for two years to have kids, without success. Employing a p.o.v. close to Luna’s, Zbanic economically sketches the sprightly woman’s unconditional love for her brawny mate, as she smilingly puts up with his occasional bossiness and booze-sodden nights out.
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Things change when Amar screws up at work, is suspended for six months and then is told by doctors that the couple’s failure to conceive is due to his sperm. When an old friend he hasn’t seen since the war, Bahrija (Ermin Bravo), offers him a temp job, Amar eagerly accepts and relocates from Sarajevo to picturesque Lake Jablanica, where Bahrija is part of a strict religious community, the Muslim Wahhabis.
Though unhappy about his departure, Luna recognizes it will probably do him good. She even goes to visit him, and Bahrija’s wife, Nadja (Mirjana Karanovic, also from “Grbavica”), comes to pick her up, allowing the helmer to focus on the difference between Luna, an atheist Bosnian Muslim, and Nadja, who lives with the other women of her community, often separated from the men, and strictly follows the rules of her faith.
Luna, who loves to wear sexy clothes and go to discos, sees the visit to the closed community as the adult version of a school trip, and is shocked when Amar starts to echo some of their religious sentiments, including many rules — no more alcohol, no more sex before marriage — that directly interfere with how the couple had led their life until that point. In an impressive scene set during a celebration of the Muslim feast of Eid, Zbanic’s real subject finally crystallizes: How far should unconditional love go?
Though the helmer’s concise screenplay and Niki Mossboeck’s precision cutting play a large role in drawing out the underlying themes, it is the work of the actors that finally ensures the story rings true. Cvitesic is luminous in the lead, and vet actress Karanovic’s innate kindness is a huge asset in the portrayal of a largely subjugated woman. Her work in a relatively small role ensures the film feels balanced, never judging but simply observing the ways of the Wahhabis.
Widescreen lensing by Christine A. Maier, who also shot “Grbavica,” not only imbues the pic with a proper cinematic feel but also visually stresses the difference between the Wahhabis — seen in wide shots, in which each individual is only one in a sea of faces — and Luna and Amar, who are frequently shown in closeup. Other tech credits are equally strong.