As The White Fortress opens, a 20-ish couple bid each other an unceremonious goodbye after a one-night stand, and she comments on a poster adorning his bedroom wall. The promotional image of Hawaii and the gentle sarcasm of the pair’s exchange perfectly capture the particular mix that courses through this finely crafted drama: youthful dreams and their fateful undertow.
Writer-director Igor Drljača (Krivina), who spent the first part of his childhood in Sarajevo before his family fled the Yugoslav wars for Canada, has made a contemporary fairy tale that’s firmly rooted in the grit of social decay. Erol Zubčević’s supple camerawork follows protagonist Faruk — played with sensitivity and a low-key spark by Pavle Čemerkić — back and forth across the hill-framed expanse of Sarajevo. The divide between the haves and have-nots is as gaping as in any modern city, and, as in any city, there’s connective tissue between them too. A corrosive corruption has touched nearly everything, the key exception being the romance that blossoms between Faruk and a girl from the opposite side of the tracks.
The White Fortress
A well-told tale, sharp and tender.
That romance begins when Faruk makes an endearingly blunt pickup attempt at the mall. His teasing rapport with Mona (Sumeja Dardagan), who’s both sophisticated and sheltered, soon develops into something tender and searching. But little is easy for either of them and, notwithstanding the hopeful symbolism of the tropical palm trees on Faruk’s poster and on his brand-new shirt, his horizons are severely limited.
Orphaned since the death of his concert pianist mother, Faruk lives in a run-down apartment complex with his ailing grandmother (Irena Mulamuhić). They eke out a living from her pension checks, and from his work with his gruff uncle Mirsad (Jasmin Geljo, star of the director’s The Waiting Room), who collects and sells scrap metal. Faruk has irons in another fire too, running errands for local crime boss Cedo (Ermin Bravo). His improvised problem-solving on one assignment lands him in hot water with the kingpin, the type who revels in being menacing and probably has studied movie prototypes to perfect his bad-guy act.
Almir (Kerim Čutuna), Faruk’s slightly older friend and the middleman in his petty-crime career, tells him more than once that he can make things right with Cedo by recruiting a new girl for his stable of sex workers. Whether that’s Faruk’s initial intention with Mona is left to the audience to decide. But it’s clear that he’s affected by the condition in which he finds Minela (Farah Hadžić) when he picks her up from her job servicing one of the city’s mansion-dwelling power brokers. A spirited teenager when he met her hours earlier, she returns traumatized and visibly battered.
No less clear is the deepening affection between Faruk and Mona, who’s probably the same age as Minela and, however privileged her life may be, is suffering from acute emotional deprivation. In the modernist hilltop home where she lives with her parents (Alban Ukaj and Jelena Kordić Kuret), Mona has come to recognize the lovelessness of their marriage — “a work arrangement,” she calls it, shocked and demoralized. Their business is politics, and in order to better focus on their bureaucracy-climbing maneuvers and stop pretending to be a family (except in photo shoots), they plan to send Mona to live with relatives in Toronto.
In the meantime, she’s chauffeured to a private school where she and her fellow students, molded to be the next generation of international movers and shakers, perfect their English, and where one of her classmates sings a well-rehearsed rendition of “God Save the Queen” — the British royal anthem, not the Sex Pistols song.
Drljača’s dialogue is sharp and alive throughout the film, particularly so during Mona and Faruk’s first date. These two are old souls, Mona especially, and their conversation moves quickly, awkwardly, exquisitely into matters of the heart. Čemerkić (The Load) and Dardagan capture the fumbling and the certainty, the way their characters are finding a language for their innermost distress while gazing into each other’s eyes with shy elation.
Love, for Mona, is “a feeling of belonging,” and as she and Faruk grow closer, she imagines their love story as a kind of fairy tale, the kind where children can soar off together into the great big world to escape a place where they don’t belong, a place of adults and their cruelty. On a more prosaic level, Faruk imagines a bygone world where evil is not only avoided but trounced: His VHS tape of the World War II drama Walter Defends Sarajevo, in which Germany proves no match for the Yugoslavs, is a source of reliable pleasure.
No one speaks directly of the fallout from other, more recent conflicts — namely, the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s — but the sense of a city devastated and still being reshaped permeates The White Fortress. In one of its most striking exchanges, Faruk’s uncle offers an offhand yet piercing understanding of the interconnections that define the daily life of a troubled metropolis. Junkyard owner Branko (Izudin Bajrović) complains that “damn junkies keep bringing useless scrap,” and Mirsad replies: “It’s not easy for them. Street drugs got more expensive.”
Drljača’s film’s title, both the original Bosnian and the English, refers to a national monument high above Sarajevo. Over smoothly climbing roads, Faruk and Mona ride his scooter to the medieval fortress, and from there, together against the world, they look out at the Miljacka River and the city, its wealth, poverty, power and despair a blur of color and light beneath them.
In a story that breathes new life into a familiar notion of innocent youth in a cutthroat world, a dog named Vučko (Samba), a beloved pet to Faruk and his high-rise neighbors, infiltrates the dreams of more than one character. In narrative terms, it might seem at times that the canine mascot is tasked with too much. But this reflects the weight that Mona and Faruk must shoulder in their day-to-day lives, and the ways that lives in The White Fortress intertwine no more predictably than dreams.