Watch This offers movie recommendations inspired by new releases, premieres, current events, or occasionally just our inscrutable whims. This week: 2021 is about half over, so we’re looking back on the best movies released this year that we didn’t review.
A sense of grim inevitability is, well, inevitable when dramatizing the tragedies of history. Even if you somehow went into Titanic without the foreknowledge that the boat sinks, you might pick up on the fatalistic undertones—the impression of impending calamity, imparted by a creative team that can’t help but frame that infamous tale of death and disaster with the privilege of hindsight. Quo Vadis, Aida?, one of the five films nominated for Best International Feature at this year’s Academy Awards (it lost the Oscar to Another Round), applies that same inherent understanding that something terrible is lurking on the horizon to the Bosnian War—specifically to the horrifying events of a single day in July 1995, when a paramilitary force carried out what has come to be referred to as the Srebrenica massacre. Where the film differs from other horror stories ripped from real life is that one of the characters herself sees the arc of awful inevitability too, and tries to prevent the only way this true story can end. It’s akin to a version of Titanic where someone spots the iceberg the moment the ship casts off from shore and spends the rest of the movie trying to steer off course.
Excepting a prologue and epilogue, Quo Vadis, Aida? unfolds over the day in question, and largely from the perspective of its title character. Aida (Jasna Đuričić, who bears a sometimes striking resemblance to Holly Hunter) is a former schoolteacher who’s working as a translator for UN peacekeepers in the small town of Srebrenica. Though the town has been deemed a “safe area,” with assurances made that Serbian forces will not enter it under fear of UN and NATO response, soldiers have in fact breached its borders, and the air support has not arrived as promised. Thousands of civilians converge upon the UN camp in search of shelter; while some are ushered inside, the rest are left to huddle, essentially defenseless, around its entrance. Though Aida has secured her own place within the compound, she has a much tougher time arranging sanctuary for her husband (Izudin Bajrović) and two adult sons (Boris Ler and Dino Bajrović). And this is before General Ratko Mladić (Boris Isaković) arrives with his troops, who begin demanding to enter the facility, allegedly to check for any soldiers hiding among the masses of hungry refugees.
What follows is essentially an anatomy of a botched humanitarian intervention, laid out step by sickening step. Writer-director Jasmila Žbanić supplies the material with an urgency familiar to the docudramas of Paul Greengrass, except with a strong current of despair and outrage that doesn’t always poke through that filmmaker’s meticulously detailed you-are-there accounts. “How did this happen?” is the question implicitly posed, and Žbanić provides a variety of answers: In way over their heads and faced with radio silence from superiors, the UN representatives in charge make critical errors in judgment, caving to demands by the Serbian forces. It’s a testament to the film’s nuanced perspective that Quo Vadis, Aida? acknowledges the impossible choices and lack of options these men are confronted with, while at the same time identifying the ways that their adherence to bureaucratic protocol was more than a strategic misstep; it was a failure of courage and and moral duty.
At the center of all this is Aida, whose attempts to protect her family from a hostile military force with plans for every boy and man in the town provides painfully personal stakes to the film’s procedural assessment. By the gut-wrenching final act, her crusade has become a desperate scramble, as she races across the compound, bending rules and begging for exceptions in a last ditch effort to avert the un-avertable, even as she plays unwilling pawn to the invading forces by translating their lies and orders to the townsfolk. Only Aida seems fully willing or able to see what’s happening—a prophecy of doom and infuriating acquiescence to evil playing out in what feels like real time. In her understanding and its accompanying helplessness, a dark lesson emerges. Quo Vadis, Aida? gives the past the immediacy of a present tense, while showing how the present can become as foregone as the past when those in power refuse to accept or prevent what’s occurring under their watch.
Availability: Quo Vadis, Aida? is currently streaming on Hulu. It’s also available to rent or purchase from the major streaming services.