Movie Review: Young Love Among the Ruins — “The White Fortress (Tabija)”

We don’t see the moment she first caught his eye. But she did. And we see how he instinctually conspires to literally “bump into” her.

He is young. She is younger. And in a flash he’s turned his “rude” bump into a come-on that ends with Faruk insisting that Mona take his phone number. He’s so smooth and confident that he does this before he can even get her name.

She lies about being a dropout. Perhaps because he obviously is. But as we’ve seen his 18ish womanizing ways, we wonder if she’s old enough to even realize she’s taken the phone number of not just a player, but a potential predator.

Because winsome, girlish Mona (Sumeja Dardagan) is just in ninth grade, and the daughter of wealthy, probably corrupt bureaucrats intent on shipping her off to Canada. And Faruk (Pavle Cemerikic) isn’t just a hustler. He’s mixed-up with some seriously shady folks in Sarajevo. Is this “grooming,” or love at first sight?

“The White Fortress,” titled “Tabija” in Bosnia Herzegovina, is a wistful, aching romance with a hint of menace about it. Well-acted and deliberately-paced, it presents us with not just two young lovers straining against all that they don’t have in common to be together, but a relationship we never question even as we know we should.

Because Faruk doesn’t just live with his grandmother, watch World War II documentaries and old Yugoslav war films, help his uncle with his scrap metal business — the long civil war, decades ago, created a lot of scrap — and chase skirts. He and his pal Almir (Pavle Cemerikic) run errands for a local gangster, the mostly-unseen but widely-feared Cedo. And chief among those errands is taking prostitutes to their appointments.

Our one hope for Faruk, and young Mona, is a simple act of arm-twisted chivalry that puts him in hot water with Cedo and underscores the danger we sense in Mona associating with the kid. When he shows up to take Minela (Farah Hadzic) to a suburban customer, he’s on his scooter. She insists he take her in a taxi.

That sets off a chain of events that could doom him, Mona and their affair, if what the thug figures he’s now “owed” is pricey enough.

Writer-director Igor Drljaca’s Oscar-submitted drama captures a country of haves and resigned, hustling have-nots. Mona’s life of school, studying English, and a luxurious house with parents who despise one another is contrasted with Faruk’s half-ruined apartment complex where he lives with his grandmother, his endless hustles and side hustles.

He leaves his scooter to take Minela by taxi, a tire is stolen from the bike, and maybe more. Extra cash for that, and the colorful shirts he likes means another hustle, another chance to get in Dutch with Cedo, another peril for Mona because Cedo needs “a girl.” And we’ve seen Minela’s fate.

As their back stories are filled in, we get a hint that maybe Faruk wasn’t always of this underclass, that maybe he had more potentially in common with Mona than we thought. But knowing her age and knowing his associations, we fear for her and what he might be capable of.

Drljaca gives this simple story just enough melodrama to get by, and frankly it could have used more. But it is an engrossing portrait of romance in a beautiful place not-that-many-decades removed from a genocidal civil war. There are ruins and history and a populace still impacted and corrupted by that history, people on edge about the possible return of the “bad old days.” Faruk and Mona’s fraught affair is engaging and sometimes moving, and a fascinating peek into how others live and how scars are carried by generations that came after a cataclysm.

Rating: unrated, sexual situations, off camera violence, smoking, profanity

Cast: Pavle Cemerikic, Sumeja Dardagan, Jasmin Geljo, Kerim Cutuna, Ermin Bravo and Farah Hadzic

Credits: Scripted and directed by Igor Drljaca. A Game Theory release.

Running time: 1:29

About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
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