Where are you marching?
During a recent visit to the National Gallery, I noticed the faintly absurd image of Christ. In Annibale Carracci’s 1602 painting, Domine, quo vadis?, the Second Coming literally points along the Appian Way, responding to Saint Peter’s startled inquiry, “Lord, where are you marching?”, a basic translation of the painting’s title. According to New Testament apocrypha, Christ’s answer is, in effect, “Rome, to be crucified again.” Christ tells his errant apostle to return with him. Peter must follow his leader, and he earns a harsh reward for his obedience. Nailed to the cross, he dies upside-down, another victim of the thuggish Emperor Nero. The story of Peter’s demise alludes to broader patterns of belated sacrifice, which often reveal themselves in depictions of belief and oppression.
Carracci’s oil is probably the most famous portrayal of quo vadis? in European art, and it at least captures, through its staged insistence, a moment of revelation, the insight that one should return to the site of pain, suffer persecution, and in doing so, reach a state of grace and resolution. Christ is rendered as a hostile monument, and the composition contrasts classical and baroque styles, which elicit a heightened dramatic quality from the scene. Draped in swirling roseate hues, Christ’s toned physique holds a flamboyant and authoritative pose, and Peter, wearing a garment of gold and electric blue, appears shrivelled and meek, knowing he must attend to his holy responsibilities. Paired up, these exaggerated figures have a bathetic effect on the viewer. Peter’s preposterous vision belies his imminent martyrdom, which appears, considering Christ’s belligerent stance, to be less of a prophecy and more of a threat.
Curiously, this image and the wider account of quo vadis? came to mind after watching several recent films about faith and conflict: two set in Bosnia, the other in Serbia. It seems that many filmmakers who grew up during the wars of Yugoslavia have since become adults, and as the decades have come on, so too has the urge to revisit the fighting that forged the contours of their childhoods. These recollections insist on different representational techniques, some of which traverse straight dramatization, enigmatic docufiction, and elliptical amalgams of archive and testimony. The three films discussed here draw on these styles in turn, constituting a sort of cinematic reckoning, the pressure placed on history from its latest products, who are, independently, contributing a short march into the past.
In a somewhat apt borrowing, writer-director Jasmila Žbanić employs the Latin phrase, and its subsequent connotations, for her film, Quo Vadis, Aida? (2020), a studied interpretation of the Srebrenica genocide, which took place in July 1995. The protagonist, Aida (Jasna Đuričić), works as a UN translator on the border of the town, at the point when it falls to Serb forces led by Ratko Mladić (played by Boris Isaković). Under the General’s command, his army and paramilitaries are shown murdering Bosniak Muslim men and boys, including Aida’s husband and son. The drama is tense, cyclical, and unforgiving, but the trauma of endless recurrence it evokes is delivered most acutely in the coda, during which Aida becomes a schoolteacher in Srebrenica. In the aftermath of war, she learns to live among those who killed her friends and family. The final scene has her class performing a show for a group of parents, pointedly containing one of the most egregious murderers, as Aida watches on, mournful and resilient. The closing portrait of her face, the accumulation of horrors, does not exude piety or grace. It rather renounces the theatre of martyrdom and illustrates a frank reality: that 25 years on, the past still refuses to be the past, the persecuted do not always flee, and agony remains embedded in the walls.
The not-quite-yet-history of conflict is threaded through two films that premiered this summer in Locarno, both of which draw on battles in the Balkan region. Shot over five years in a docufictional style that fuses reality and imagination, Brotherhood (2021) is an assured second feature from the Italian director, Francesco Montagner. His main subjects are three sibling sheep farmers, Jabir, Usama, and Useir (actual brothers), who live and work together in rural Bosnia. The location might indicate a sort of travel-dilettantism on the part of the filmmaker, but he uses a thoughtful, embedded approach and an organic perspective. The plot is set in motion by the initial presence and eventual absence of the boys’ father, Ibrahim, once a Mujahideen who fought the Serbs in the 1990s, soon to be imprisoned for his arcane association with Islamic terror plots.
“Ibra,” as he is known, is a strict and devout paternal figure, whose influence varies among his children. The deeply religious middle child, Usama, is ridiculed for his piousness by the youngest, Useir, whose countenance transforms most starkly as he enters his teenage years. The eldest, Jabir, tries to manage the resentments and indiscretions of both while pursuing an adult life of his own. The question of quo vadis?—and more specifically, of paternal devotion—is reformulated by the interpersonal dynamics of the trio. Where are they trying to go? Usama emphasises the moral value of maintaining their father’s farm; Useir seems distracted from the rigours of the homestead; and Jabir makes a tentative step into the metropolitan world of education and professional work. Compared to Srebrenica, much less is at stake, but the boys’ forlorn routine and limited prospects reveal an extended fallout, the residue of war and ancestry that still shrouds its descendants.
DP Prokop Souček’s attraction to twilight image-making bathes them in alternate conditions and landscapes: the bucolic glow regularly gives way to bleak precipitation. These visual disparities evoke both the wistful suggestion of youthful discovery and the melancholy of farmhand labour. City life—the hubbub of schools, clubs, and friendships—is juxtaposed against the austere, solitary routine of herding, shearing, and butchering the flock. Themes of tradition, responsibility, honour, and fraternity underpin much of the drama, but these are not offered insistently; instead, they churn and fester through the teenagers’ interactions. The way the brothers look—similar but not identical, with gradual stages of auburn illuminating their hair—supplies an eerie discombobulation. Useir’s shaved head reappears as he ages, hinting at, but not advertising, the compression of time that echoes the suppression of their livelihoods. His indifference to prayer sets up an abrupt close, which posits the simplicity of escape above complicated filial obligations. Useir seeks new pastures, rather than repeat the sins of his father, abandoning the fidelity to scripture that has been forced upon his brothers.
Rampart (2021), meanwhile, offers a deeply personal, although indirect, perspective on the NATO bombing campaign in Belgrade. Through a hybrid form of documentary, Marko Grba Singh returns to his childhood apartment on the outskirts of the capital and finds an archive of home recordings, VHS tapes from 1998 to 1999, which he intersperses with contemporary footage. The trivial day-to-day of his youth—playfighting dogs in the lounge, basketball in the street, Age of Empires on bulky monitors—are pockmarked with sonic interruptions, the sound of metal falling in the distance. The intricate mesh of these events evokes not a duty of faith, as in Brotherhood, but a living document of multiple generations. The director’s grandfather narrates most of the historical video, which provides a poignancy for the film’s frequent cuts to the present. The grandfather has since died, and Grba Singh stands as a solemn figure in an empty building, himself now carrying the sight and sound equipment.
These scenes combined— the old intercut with the new—reveal the essence of formal counterpoint: the refraction of light that bends both ways. The interpolations of modern Belgrade transform Grba Singh’s commitment to memorialize what has been lost. By returning to these sites of nostalgia, he does not aim to restore a collective chronicle but rescue a private past. The bombs we hear exploding, some miles away, are not the central subjects; they form textures within an excavated memory. To show the incidental nature of history, as Grba Singh does, disturbs the signs of an obvious destination. For him, space and time cannot be separated, the self and the public are fused together, and any act of return is freighted with contradictions, a territory filled with both the light trivia of reminiscence and the brute fact of historical record. Quo vadis? If only we knew yet.