Young love set against a backdrop of crime is a tale as old as time. In The White Fortress, the story is set in modern-day Sarajevo and follows a young man called Faruk (Pavle Čemerikić) as he navigates the current realities of growing up poor in the politically divided city.
Headed down the path toward a life of crime, Faruk beings the film by driving a young woman –a prostitute– to the fortified house of a customer. When he messes that up, he heads to a mall where he meets and connects with Mona (Sumeja Dardagan). They are, in most meaningful ways, opposites. Faruk is from a once affluent family whose fortunes were decimated during the war, while Mona’s family is one of the new elite. He lives in squalor with his grandmother; she lives in a modern house in an affluent part of the city.
The film struggles a big in deciding what exactly it wants to be, star-cross romance or gritty crime thriller, but ultimately it lands somewhere in the middle as a coming of age story. It also doesn’t commit with any depth to the class divides that it could be exploring. It’s not that it doesn’t work, just that it lacks a little bit of focus.
This is easily forgivable, though, thanks to the performances. Čemerikić, in particular, stands out as Faruk, who needs to carry moments of menace and sweetness in equal measure and does so with grace and empathy. Dardagan is also excellent as Mona, the young woman who feels entirely out of control of her destiny, both happy and melancholy. Finally, Farah Hadžić only has two full scenes but ends up stealing the film with her performance as Minela, the young prostitute. In her first scene, she is arrogant and carries herself with assurance, and in her second, when she is picked up from the house she grew up in, she’s a little girl again, reduced to pieces by cruelties her client inflicted on her.
The last character of the film is the city itself. Director Igor Drljača and cinematographer Erol Zubčević go to great lengths to show both sides of the city. The cinematography is at times stunning, in particular the last few shots of one of the last scenes, which show us the entire city drenched in a sunset, and then sunrise.
Despite its issues, The White Fortress is a lovely film with several strong performances, and while it’s light on the commentary, it’s big on heart.
The White Fortress (Tabija) played as part of the 2021 Vancouver International Film Festival and is playing as part of the 2021 Montreal Festival du Nouveau Cinema.
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