There are three white fortresses that neatly demarcate the divides so evocatively drawn in Igor Drljača’s “The White Fortress,” recently named Bosnia and Herzegovina’s submission for the 94th Oscars. There’s the grim, encircling tower block in which scrappy low-level hustler Faruk (Pavle Čemerkić) lives with his grandmother. There’s the modernist dream home perched on a hill that belongs to the wealthy, distant, politically corrupt parents of teenager Mona (Sumeja Dardagan). And there’s the famous late-medieval White Fortress, or Bijela Tabija, the national monument that overlooks Sarajevo, where Faruk and Mona spend a single night of their doomed romance in an embrace that inevitably dissolves in the cold light of morning.
The love-across-the-social-divide narrative is hardly new, but writer-director Drljača (“The Waiting Room,” “The Stone Speakers”) turns familiarity into an advantage. Along with a gently intense performance from pale-eyed rising Balkan star Čemerkić (“No One’s Child,” “The Load”), it allows him to pay attention to the textures and rhythms of this very specific setting, knowing the mythic overtones of the Romeo-and-Juliet storyline will create their own momentum. And so we get a sorrowful little love story that is also a touching portrait of a generation trapped in their nation’s divided present, which is itself a legacy of its troubled past — alluded to here in excerpts from the 1972 film “Walter Defends Sarajevo” about a band of Yugoslav partisans during WWII.
Faruk has been an orphan since the death of his concert-pianist mother. Tapes of her performances play fuzzily on the TV of his ailing grandmother’s apartment, where he now lives, and provide Casey MQ’s sparingly used score with a melancholic undertow: one outdoor sequence is set to faint piano music coming through muffled and faraway, like it’s being played in a distant room. Faruk’s day-to-day life is very far from such cultured influences, though. When not working with his uncle scavenging scrap metal, he shoplifts, gets recruited into petty crime schemes by his brash friend Almir (Kerim Čutuna) and uses his offbeat charm to seduce girls. But all his streetsmarts belie a tenderness underneath, that comes out when he’s sent to pick up Milena (Farah Hadžić) a trash-talking teenager who has been procured for prostitution by Almir’s ruthless boss Čedo (Ermin Bravo).
Faruk’s softer side further reveals itself when he bumps into quiet, pretty Mona accidentally at the mall, tries some of his pick-up patter on her, and gives her his number. Unexpectedly, she calls — Mona lives a far more cosseted life but she too has her reasons for wanting to escape — and a movingly delicate relationship springs up between these two young people with ostensibly nothing in common.
Days later, Faruk and Almir are sent to pick Milena up again. Now she’s scratched and bleeding and her fishnets are in shreds. She stumbles, traumatized, out of the gated house under the impassive eye of a chauffeur. His silent presence is a subtle cue that Mona and Faruk are linked in darker ways too — ways they don’t even know about, but that stand for all the unseen forces of class, power and privilege that are conspiring to separate them.
Erol Zubčevik’s calm, crepuscular photography, appropriate for characters who may just be at the dawn of adulthood but who already behave like it’s dusk, somehow manages to carve out a shared romantic space for worlds that should never really intersect. Mona’s lessons at her expensive English-language private school are shot with the same detached sympathy as Faruk’s tense run-ins with mobster Čedo, despite their different stakes. And both characters have moments where the camera creeps slowly in on their young faces, and finds something similarly old in their eyes. Here, concrete towers and ivory towers alike are lit by the same golden setting sun, and the same shadows lengthen across them as have stretched across the fort on the hill for centuries.
On one of their chaste little dates, Faruk and Mona find themselves on a road through a forest in the failing light of evening. To Mona, it looks like a fairytale; to Faruk, like a horror movie. They are both right, and the sad, wise heart of Drljača’s small, impressively controlled film condemns neither of them, but instead understands what horror stories and fairytales have in common: both are narratives in which the characters have no control, and are instead propelled by forces far bigger than they are, toward destinies they were born into that they cannot avert. And so the film slides gracefully into its finale, and when the focus shifts from Faruk to Mona, that move too, feels preordained. More than crime or poverty or even heartbreak, it’s as if the inevitable fate of the socially marginalized is to become, at best, the fondly remembered, vanishing bit-players in the stories of the rich.