The micro-budget feature “Focus, Grandma” from Bosnian helmer-writer Pjer Žalica is a black comedy set in Sarajevo during the spring of 1992, when members of a dysfunctional family are summoned to the bed of their dying matriarch. As the siblings and their spouses arrive from far-flung parts of Yugoslavia, their squabbles and meanderings down memory lane, as well as machinations over the anticipated inheritance, distract them from the bigger picture of what is happening to their country.
Although the storyline feels a tad familiar and the humor is less sharp than in Žalica’s debut “Fuse,” there is considerable pleasure in watching the talented players in the ensemble. This opening attraction of the now-digital 26th edition of the Sarajevo fest is available for viewing worldwide via the fest’s online platform.
After the sympathetic family doctor (Izudin Bajrović) visits the home of Marija, the titular grandma (legendary Serbian performer Mira Banjac, who is still active at almost 90 years old) and declares her time is nigh, her flustered cohabitants, daughter Kika (Jasna Žalica, a beloved mainstay of her helmer husband’s films) and her bumbling mate Muhamed (Emir Hadžihafizbegović, perhaps Sarajevo’s most ubiquitous actor), start to summon the rest of the clan. Luckily, Kika’s sister from Croatia, the cynical Aša (Alma Prica), and her highly capable daughter Juca (Jadranka Đokić) are already visiting, under the guise of another errand.
As Kika and Aša swap reminiscences, a picture emerges of an unhappy family suffering under the thumb of hot-tempered Marija, who was mean and interfering, capable of derailing their hopes and dreams with a withering sentence. Their beloved father, an artist, was a long-time political prisoner, reducing opportunities for the family. Meanwhile, their oldest brother, who could not gain admittance to pilot school, fled to Italy.
Marija’s apparent favorites are her youngest daughter Suzana (Dženita Imamović) and Suza’s imposing and wily husband Bane (Branislav Popović) from wild Montenegro. But equally crafty is her Serbian daughter-in-law Stojanka (Vedrana Božinović), the wife of weak-willed Damir (Admir Glamočak). Kika snidely notes to Aša that their brother “can’t even fart without his wife.”
While Bane and Stojanka conspire over a possible new will for Marija, other secrets and lies come to light. Meanwhile, Aša’s more clear-eyed view of current events are confirmed by incidents closer to home.
Žalica, who is also active as a documentarian and a professor at the Academy of Performing Arts Sarajevo, hasn’t helmed a fiction feature since 2004’s “Days And Hours.” “Grandma” unreels during a more innocent time, when the Republic of Yugoslavia had not yet fully splintered, and the dialogue reveals the conflicting beliefs of the extended family, views that were later exploited by nationalists on the various sides. Meanwhile, horrific events such as the siege of Dubrovnik are dismissed as things that could never happen in multi-national, multi-faith Sarajevo.
The all-star group of thesps, some native Bosnians, others from Croatia, Montenegro and Serbia, seem entirely in tune with the director’s intentions and appear to enjoy playing off of each other.
Saddled with a tight budget, Žalica makes smart use of a single location, the hills above Sarajevo home of Marija. Although he mostly shoots in claustrophobic interiors (bedrooms, particularly Marija’s where the family is on death watch, the basement where Damir discovers some hidden papers under a bust of Tito, and the living room and kitchen), cinematographer Almir Đikoli’s workmanlike camera sometimes takes a welcome breather outside on the porch, the steps and driveway.
The film is produced by the Sarajevo fest’s top executives — Mirosad Purivatra, the director; Amra Bakšic Čamo, the head of Cinelink; and Jovan Marjanović, the head of industry — as part of a low-budget initiative to ensure that quality cinema is made in Sarajevo on a regular basis. “Focus, Grandma” is the second title to emerge from the venture after Martin Turk’s “A Good Day’s Work” (2018). An as-yet-unannounced third feature is due to shoot next year.