A broken family serves as a metaphor for a damaged society in”Children of Sarajevo,” the ambitious second feature from Bosnian helmer-writer Aida Begic, whose underlying theme here is the country’s lost moral compass as it remains trapped in a torturously slow transition from a state of war. Slated to open the Sarajevo fest in July, this tale of two orphaned siblings eschews a traditional narrative arc, providing instead a slice of life at a particular moment in time. Potent drama is more accessible than Begic’s debut “Snow,” and should reach a larger, albeit still niche, arthouse audience.
Set against the backdrop of a cold Balkan winter, with New Year’s fireworks recalling the sound of mortar fire, the narrative centers on hardworking restaurant cook Rahima (Marija Pikic, impressive), 23, who struggles to make ends meet while looking after her juvenile-delinquent brother Nedim (Ismir Gagula), 14. The lad is causing trouble in school, where he is scorned by some of his nouveau-riche classmates, and Rahima’s got enough on her plate without social services breathing down her neck.
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Although Rahima wears a headscarf, marking her as a devout Muslim, it is implied that she, too, had run-ins with the law during a wild adolescence at the orphanage. While she now treads the straight and narrow, she continues to make it clear that no one can push her around.
Through multiple repetitions of Rahima’s daily routine, we observe the stark contrasts of postwar Sarajevo, where flashy new villas and fancy cars coexist with grinding poverty. Corruption and injustice have empowered violent thugs in many walks of life, and the government’s privatization schemes line the pockets of politicians and criminals at the expense of the needy.
In comparison, brief flashes of Rahima’s memories from the years of the Sarajevo siege depict a time of more human connection and fellowship. These recollections not only provide a historical context for the narrative, but also suggest that ordinary people’s dreams about the reconstruction of Bosnian society have been replaced by a sad nostalgia.
Although one might wish for greater character development and more backstory, Begic’s screenplay leaves the past as background, letting the occasional line of dialogue serve as exposition.
As Rahima, tightly wound Pikic moves like a whirlwind, providing a momentum that compels visual interest and matches the prowling handheld camerawork. Nikola Djuricko proves a strong presence as Tarik, Rahima’s potential love interest, even though he has relatively little screentime. Unfortunately, the weakest performance comes from young Gagula, who fails to evince any nuance as the sullen teenager.
Working again with her husband, Erol Zubcevic, as cameraman, Begic opts for a visual style and rhythm that is the complete opposite of her first feature. While “Snow” featured long static shots and bright colors, “Children” unfolds mostly at night, with the jittery shoulder-mounted camera in near constant motion. The grain of the images suggest a documentary truth to match the period video material used for Rahima’s memories.
Other tech credits are solid, though opinions will be divided about the use of classical music at the pic’s beginning and end.