Jan. 30, 2008 - Issue #641: Trashing Health Care Premiums
Grbavica, Law of the Weakest offer a tale of two European citiesIn the opening minutes of Grbavica: The Land of My Dreams (Strand), we’ve jostled through a club, come home, gone to school, sat on a crowded bus as one man’s hairy chest looms over us and walked through a market.
This is life in Sarajevo for Esma (Mirjana Karanoviç) and her daughter Sara (Luna Mijoviç). Esma isn’t making enough money in her daytime job at a dress- and shoe-making factory, so she takes a second job as a waitress at a nightclub. She also needs the extra money for Sara’s school trip.
Writer-director Jasmila Îbaniç plunks us down in a city that, 10 years after war, is still struggling to its feet. Some of the war’s soldiers have come out on top and become club-runners, pimps and black marketeers, driving flashy cars that crank out Europop. Pelda (Leon Luãev), a bodyguard for Esma’s boss at the club, takes an interest in the single mother, but their main point of connection is the loss of their fathers in the war. She found hers; he thought he did at the site of one mass-graves excavation—the man had the same watch and boots as his father—but he didn’t check his mouth. A gold tooth marked him as another woman’s dad. “But I liked the man as if he had been my father,” Pelda says.
Sara, who often flashes into a petulant temper with her mom or babysitter, knows nothing of her father but is sure he was killed in the fighting. If Esma would just provide a certificate verifying his soldier status, she can prove her proud patrilineage and get a discount for the school trip.
But the walls between hero and monster, survivor and victim, have crumbled. This is a city that, as Pelda half-jokes of Esma, is “cracked.” In a ruined building, churlish Sara makes out with a boy from school whose father did die in the war, snow-blanketed Sarajevo laid out in the distance behind them. Men can try to rip open old wounds from the war, while women survivors gather before a well-meaning academic to unburden a little of their memories, but mostly because they’re paid to do so for her study.
In this post-trauma world, Pelda and Esma court each other awkwardly, uncertainly, as though not sure they can rely on the mere possibility of happiness. Something harsh and curt chafes at the bond between mother and daughter. When the film’s revelation comes, it staggers you with the shock of the suddenly blinding but always obvious. You don’t want to believe it but you feel its truth cutting at the heart of the tragic Balkan conflict of the 1990s, as surely as a man at the market chops a fish with a certain brisk, thoughtless violence, as profoundly as the folk songs that carry so much more ironic meaning now, post-war, than their earliest singers could ever have imagined.
Grbavica is so intensely immediate, so caught up in the rush and roil of everyday survival, that it never becomes hopelessly sad.
(Unfortunately, though, the disc offers a transfer where the picture is a little too compressed and the subtitles omit accented letters in characters’ names.) Life is just a “roll of dice,” but its scuzzy nightclub highs and mundane daily-grind lows eventually lead to a strained acceptance between mother and daughter in this land that—though Esma “had already forgotten there was anything beautiful in this world”—can still offer some solace.
The city in Lucas Belvaux’s The Law of the Weakest (Mongrel/Métropole) isn’t touched by the ravages of war but by industry—Belgium is the most industrialized country on earth. The camera, moving as smoothly and cleanly as a well-oiled machine, pans along factory lines of clinking beer bottles, across dirt lots tracked by bulldozers and loaders, over an urban landscape of towering apartment blocks.
Some of the only greenery around is in the small garden allotments that Marc (Belvaux himself) works when he’s not taking care of his son Steve (Elie Belvaux). Marc, still jobless after earning three degrees, feels unmanned after his father-in-law gives his wife Carole (The Dreamlife of Angels’ Natacha Régnier) a new moped to get to work in.
Bitter pride becomes desperate lunacy when Marc’s friends, Robert (Claude Semal), Jean-Pierre (Patrick Descamps) and ex-con Patrick (Eric Caravaca), decide to hold up the old steel factory that laid them off—now the scrap steel is sold for millions, while the workers left behind had never been given their full dues, only romanticized now on guided tours as past “aristocrats of the working class.”
The gritty, claustrophobic world of the Dardenne brothers is opened up a little, given more of a coldly grand sweep, as the European working-world dramas of Laurent Cantet (Human Resources, Time Out) merge with the thriller genre. These labouring men’s lives, after all, are already in suspense, caught between the ongoing drudgery of the present and an outsourced future.
But scenes between friends and between Marc and Carole lack the gravity of years passed together—the emotional history behind the characters just isn’t there. The film, in the end, as solidly good as it is, rings a bit hollow, feels a little pointlessly bleak. The last sparks of the steel furnace where Robert and Jean-Pierre used to work have faded, and all that’s left is for life to grind itself down. V
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