2021 Oscar Reviews: Quo Vadis, Aida?

For the past several years, I’ve attempted to watch as many Oscar-nominated films as possible, and for the past two years I have written reviews of each film and posted them to this blog. Alas, I always run out of time and cannot see everything. This year’ ceremony has been delayed, and I started reviewing before nominations were announced, giving me a decent chance at wide coverage. Today we cover…

Quo Vadis, Aida?

[one nominated for Best International Feature]

I am so relieved to finally get a break from these super depressing children’s movies and move on to more lighthearted fare like [checks notes]… genocide. Oh boy.

Aida will send shivers up the spines of anyone who watches it, or at least it should. The films opens in the Bosnian village of Srebrenica in 1995. Depending on the viewer’s knowledge going in, this may already be a terrifying revelation. I turned 13 in the summer of 1995, so while I had a vague idea of some distant conflict at the time, I wasn’t following any details and haven’t filled in too many of the details in the meantime. So I would say I entered with a medium sense of knowledge, and a solid sense of dread for what I was about to witness. Someone coming in with prior knowledge of the specific atrocities in Srebrenica will be nervous for every character from the very start, knowing that (spoiler alert) they’re all about to get raped and/or killed. People coming in with no previous knowledge, well, they’re about to get their hearts ripped out. I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say, there is no happy ending on this one.

The concept that most permeates this film is “hopelessness.” Our characters all know exactly what is going to happen. But there is nothing they can do. Our hero Aida is fighting harder than anyone around her to save her family. But everyone around her has given up. It’s not that they don’t want to fight back; it’s that there is virtually nothing anyone can do when faced with so much force and evil. Everyone is only searching for the least likely way to wind up dead. Is a negotiation with the invader likely to help? No. But not negotiating is guaranteed to not help. Should we trust these guys? No. But if we don’t do as they say, they will shoot us. And so on and so forth. For me personally, I thought of Latvia circa WWII. I thought of mass deportations, and civilians stuck between super powers, and there being no good solutions or options. I also thought of The Handmaid’s Tale; of how close we could be to the brink of civilization at any given point. For many modern Americans, the feel of 90’s Bosnia likely still feels to different from home to draw a personal connection; we feel that wars and genocides are something that happens in other places. We cannot imagine it here at home. But to me, the Bosnians so felt like Latvians to me that I could feel myself in the middle of the madness. I think many of us got similar gut checks on January 6th, watching the type of crazed rebellion that only happens in those “other” places and times, never here in our homes.

Watching this film prompted me to go research the specific events for myself. So far having just read a couple Wikipedia pages, I have to say… this film could have been a LOT darker. Like much, much darker. In the film, we see refugees both inside and outside the base hoping to somehow flee to safety which never arrives. They are nervous and scared, just waiting for death. We watch then get loaded onto buses for “evacuation” even though we know many of them likely aren’t really being evacuated. The anticipation of certain tragedy is what drives our anxiety throughout the film. But, according to Wikipedia, atrocities were already occurring right there in the crowds. Out in the open. Rapes, murders, infanticides, torture. All of it. I’m not sure why that part wasn’t show in the film, and why the actual slaughter scene was reserved for later. Maybe it’s because our main characters inside the base were not aware of everything happening outside? Or maybe the filmmakers didn’t find it necessary, since they were able to convey the terror and sadness without resorting to gore. Who knows.

Aida relies heavily on a strong performance by it’s lead, Jasna Đuričić, who plays a translator inside the base. As the translator, she sees the conflict from many angles, as she mingles amongst her own family and friends, as well as with the Dutch UN military and medical personnel. She is present at meetings with leaders, sends her husband as a negotiator with the Serbian invaders, and is forced to bark certain-death-sentence commands to her people. We see a woman with extreme strength, cunning, and resilience. Look for that to be balanced, towards the end, in a very, very powerful postwar scene where she walks among recovered bodies. Đuričić was fantastic, and it’s a major disappointment that she was not nominated.

At this point I’ve seen all but 1 of the foreign feature nominees, and I’ve gotta say, this is a close call. I think Collective should still win, but Aida would be a very close second. It’s a truly gripping, chilling, masterful work that everyone should see. And for me personally it was refreshing to return to something a bit weightier after slogging through all those cartoons.

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