On Wednesday of this week, as the headlines were overwhelmed with news of America’s withdrawal from Afghanistan, and as we all began to realize the brutality — especially against women and girls — that would quickly be unleashed across that country, I did what many of us did: In the interest of learning, I read until I felt sick and helpless. And then, obligations and responsibilities pulled me away, heavy hearted, back into my routine.

Later, weary and given an occasion to rest, I decided to distract my brain with a movie. And, well, I sure picked a hell of a day to check out Quo vadis, Aida?, the best-reviewed film released in the U.S. in 2021.  Hell of a day? How about a hell of a month?! I don’t know… maybe there hasn’t been a “good moment” in the last five or six years for watching movies about events as horrifying as the genocide in Bosnia. How does it make any sense to give our attention to the dramatization of some other society’s violent overthrow while we we are watching it happen right now, either elsewhere in the world or here, either swiftly or in slow motion?

Or, on the other hand, you could argue that this is the best time for us to watch Quo vadis, Aida? 

The calm before the storm: Srebrenica on the verge of an invasion that the U.N. seems incapable of stopping. [Image from the Curzon trailer.]
Directed with grit and precision by Jasmila Žbanić, this film tells the story of Aida Selmanagić, a Bosnian schoolteacher-turned-translator in about as tight a spot as a translator can find herself. She’s aiding Dutch agents of the United Nations in negotiations with the hostile Serbian army as they advance on the city of Srebrenica. Srebrenica has been marked as a safe zone, but does that mean anything? The more Aida attends to and relays the unfriendly words being exchanged, the more she sees how little power the “peacekeepers” really have, and her hopes for peaceful resolution quickly collapse. Then, as the temperature rises and as promises are broken, she begins to sense the jaws of genocide closing around her her neighbors, her friends, and even her husband Nihad (Izudin Bajrović) and sons Hamdija (Boris Ler) and Sejo (Dino Bajrović). If she can’t save the thousands of panic-stricken people in her community, can she at least rescue a few?

That central question might sound very familiar. But although Quo vadis, Aida? is not as sweeping in its scope as Schindler’s List, and though it lacks that film’s conclusion contrived for emotional catharsis, this is for the Bosnian war what that landmark film is for the Holocaust. It just doesn’t have names like Spielberg or Neeson or Fiennes to sell it — which is a shame, because as difficult as it is to take, it is an essential memorial and a reminder that, as Faulkner said, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

Aida Selmanagić (Jasna Đuričić) is a translator in a tight spot. [Image from the Curzon trailer.]
Putting the screws to the audience the way director Paul Greengrass in films like United 93 and Captain Phillips, Christine A. Maier’s camera careens from wide-angle shots that give us the scope of the crisis to close-ups of faces so drawn with tension they seem likely to tear open. Actress Jasna Đuričić has one of those faces that is immediately convincing in these circumstances; she is tough, fierce, and quick-thinking, but you can see the horror like flames rising behind her eyes and burning through her capacity for wisdom and restraint. Đuričić carries the whole film on her shoulders, we follow Aida into crowds, up to fences, into long corridors in search of high-ranking officials, into meetings where she is not welcome, into possible hiding places for her family. This is a performance of such ferocious intensity that I hope Đuričić had good care around her after the film’s production wrapped. How can it not have been a scarring experience?

And all the way through, we are never allowed to forget the physicality of bodies being pressed into a warehouse like sheep being driven into the paths and pens that contain them for slaughter. This is a movie you can smell, and that ratchets up the suspense and the terror of it. This is the most harrowing thing I’ve seen since, what… Son of Saul, perhaps? Actually, that’s a pretty good reference point, in that it’s about an actual hell of human history revealed through the eyes of one character. As we follow this desperate soul through jarring errands and investigations (edited expertly by Jaroslaw Kaminski, who edited Ida), we learn the Kafka-esque geography of a maze of so-called “diplomacy” that has no evident escape.

One of Aida’s most challenging tasks is to translate announcements she doesn’t believe herself to her people, whose are easy targets for the advancing Serbian army. [Image from the Curzon trailer.]
As difficult as this movie is to watch, I’m glad I saw it this week. I needed the education. And I needed the reminder that the horror and despair I feel as I watch naive and self-obsessed Americans sabotage their own democracy is not unique. In fact, my life so far has been one of immense privilege. Empires are destroyed from the outside and from the inside all the time. And here’s a movie to remind us of what it was like to be there, in the company of our neighbors, as they suffered a living nightmare, and as we read about it — or didn’t — from just around the corner, and then went on with our days.

In 1995, when the events depicted in this film took place, I had just graduated from college, and I had just lost the most significant relationship of my life so far. I felt as if the world had turned upside down on me. So I wasn’t paying much attention to the news. If I had been, then news of this single-day slaughter of more than 8,000 Bosnian Muslims (mostly men and boys), and the subsequent rape of many women who were allowed to live, might have given me some sobering perspective.

I’ve read about this chapter of history since then, but the reality — the madness, the satanic hatefulness, the tactics clearly designed to imitate the murderous machinery of the Nazis — is a necessary subject for our attention, as even the most famously humane nations in the world can be so easily manipulated into carrying out horrors like this if the wrong people are given power. (The most difficult thing about my past few years as an American has been the discovery that many — perhaps most — American Christians would be easily duped into handing control of their country over to a fascist who, given the occasion, would slaughter populations without flinching. There are songs celebrating America I don’t sing anymore, histories I was taught that I no longer believe, hopes I once had for America’s future that now seem far from possible.)

Aida and her husband make a last, desperate plea for deliverance from the slaughter she knows will come. [Image from the Curzon trailer.]
Maybe it would do us some good to be reminded, right now, of how feeble are the powers upon which we depend for any measure of peace, justice, and hope. Maybe we need to see how quickly basic human decency is callously dismissed when hateful human beings are granted power and weapons. Maybe we need to see what could become of populations right here, in our own neighborhoods, if we do not defend hard-won civil rights and continue to improve and diversify our democracy. This is the world. Same as it ever was.

As the end credits rolled, I found myself scrolling back through the film, searching for any glimmer of hope, any suggestion of a Holy Spirit hovering over these troubled waters. It is good to learn that General Ratko Mladić, the malevolent general who ordered the murders, is locked up for life, but my heart remains unconsoled. All I find is that groaning that the Scriptures describe, the lament of the Spirit that runs “too deep for words” — God’s heart breaking as the gifts given to the God’s children are sharpened into weapons of mass destruction. All I read in Aida’s traumatized face is Christ’s own echo of the Psalmist’s despairing cry: “My God, why have you forsaken me?”

As Aida, Jasna Đuričić gives us an indelible image of grim determination, terror, and despair. [Image from the Curzon trailer.]
But then I read Justin Chang’s Los Angeles Times review, and he highlighted a surprisingly obvious reference to the Scriptures, one that hadn’t occurred to me:

The title’s invocation of the Latin phrase “quo vadis?” (“Where are you going?”) — a reference to the apostle Peter’s flight from crucifixion in Rome — here feels like a moral inquiry, both sympathetic and reproachful, directed at Aida’s conscience. Her concern for her family above all else is an entirely human reaction, to be expected from anyone in her shoes. But even as it acknowledges this, the movie … keeps feeding us sidelong glimpses of those for whom Aida can do nothing.

I wonder what this film will inspire in audiences. Will it just seem like a cautionary tale that we suffer and then go back to work? Me, I’m reminded to heed the vision of Sheriff Bell at the conclusion of No Country for Old Men: Our ultimate hope lies in the dreams and visions of prophets and poets. We can’t stop the destruction already being wrought; we can’t undo the accelerating decline of the planet’s delicate balance that has made human life possible. So, you who are doomed to die beside me, one way or another, as the wages of humankind’s sins catch up with us… what do you believe in?

May the promises of God — ultimate justice, boundless mercy — prove true.