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film review

In The White Fortress, Faruk, played by Pavle Čemerikić, lives with his grandmother in Sarajevo and battles to escape poverty by doing shady deals.Courtesy of Timelapse Pictures

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The White Fortress (Tabija)

Written and directed by Igor Drljaca

Starring Pavle Cemerikic and Sumeja Dardagan

Classification N/A; 89 minutes

Opens March 24 at Vancouver’s Cinematheque, March 28 at select Landmark cinemas; available to rent via digital TIFF Bell Lightbox starting March 25

Critic’s Pick

We all, in our own way, dream of The White Fortress. A place of purity, just beyond reach. Where our imaginations and Bosnian-Canadian director Igor Drljaca’s new film diverge, though, is the route there – and how terrifying, daunting, perhaps impossible that journey can ultimately be. Set in a postwar Sarajevo, where the class divide is stark and the past is ready to pounce like a rabid dog at a moment’s notice, The White Fortress is a startling, hypnotizing, but above all haunting work destined to linger.

At least, it still rattles inside my mind, more than a year after watching it during the 2021 virtual Berlinale film festival. My expectations were high, given Drljaca’s wonderful but underseen filmography: Krivina, The Waiting Room, the documentary The Stone Speakers. For any audience fortunate enough to catch those films during their blink-and-miss runs – or perhaps at one of the retrospectives put on by TIFF and other essential art-house institutions – Drljaca’s talents are obvious. The filmmaker, who is currently based in Vancouver, has a deft poetic touch, with an eye for how deeply and painfully history bleeds into our everyday actions.

In The White Fortress (or Tabija, in Bosnian), Drljaca delivers what might be his breakthrough: a patient, sharp, immersive work that flirts with terror, fairy tale, and coming-of-age romance. It asks of its audience an open heart, a curious imagination, and the skill to watch a film through the spaces between your fingers.

The film opens with Faruk (Pavle Cemerikic), a young man bordering on adulthood who lives with his grandmother in a weathered apartment block. Faruk has few prospects in life, and cannot help but drift toward a path of low-level criminality, even if it is clear the teen has no affinity for the trade’s necessary sociopathy. Things change one afternoon – possibly for the better, possibly for an even more doomed outcome – when Faruk meets Mona (Sumeja Dardagan), a bored teenager whose parents retain powerful political connections to the country’s ruling class. As the pair begin to connect – their paths winding in and out of Sarajevo’s hidden corners – a Romeo-and-Juliet romance blooms, with all its attendant prospects of tragedy.

Pavle Čemerikić and Sumeja Dardagan star in The White Fortress.Courtesy of Timelapse Pictures

Intimate and focused, Drljaca’s film luxuriates in character and place. By tracing Faruk and Mona’s twin desires to escape their circumstances, the filmmaker displays a deep understanding of that inexorable pull we all feel in our lives toward something greater, less burdened by whatever came before. It is a universal story, rooted in Sarajevo specificity.

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