Esma (Mirjana Karanovic) lives with her unruly 12-year-old daughter Sara (Luna Mijovic) in the Grbavica district of Sarajevo that is still reeling from the devastation of the Yugoslav wars during the '90s. Esma has told Sara that her father died a hero, a war martyr fighting for Bosnia. And yet, since she has never been told any of the details of his death, Sara has her deep suspicions.
"Grbavica: The Land of My Dreams" is written and directed by Jasmila Zbanic in a stripped-down style that carries cumulative force. It appears to have been made from the inside, not only of the characters but of the historical situation in which they struggle.
Esma works nights as a cocktail waitress, a demeaning job that leaves her little time to cope with Sara. She attends group therapy sessions, where the widows' recountings of the horrors of war – the rapes and pillaging – are bone-chillingly matter-of-fact. This is what Esma lives with and cannot share with her daughter. Sara fears abandonment and turns on her mother at the slightest provocation. Their bond is immeasurably close, yet fragile.
The conflict comes to a head when Esma fails to produce a certificate, needed for a discount on an upcoming school trip, proving that Sara's father died a martyr. What comes of all this is a finale of ambiguous hope and reconciliation. Zbanic, who lives in the Grbavica neighborhood and whose first film this is, doesn't push for grand revelations. She knows life doesn't work that way, at least not for these people.
Karanovic, best remembered from Emir Kusturica's "When Father Was Away on Business," is a remarkably expressive actress. When Esma suits up in her cocktail dress, the squalor of her life comes crashing down on her and yet she soldiers through. We don't need to find out what happened to her in the war – although eventually we do. Her eyes tell us everything.
Against all odds she tries to do right by everybody, including herself. She has no illusions, not even about the bodyguard (Leon Lucev) who fancies her and who has his own horrors to sort out. Ultimately Esma is not a martyr but a heroine. Grade: A–
• "Grbavica" is unrated.