On the Path -- Film Review

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BERLIN -- In 2006, Bosnian director Jasmila Zbanic was awarded the Golden Bear at Berlin for her exceptional film "Grbavica," a wrenching story of a mother concealing a nasty secret, born of war, from her beloved daughter. With "On the Path" (Na Putu), a well-crafted if less intense film that offers a complex look at various strains of Islam in contemporary Bosnia, she could quite possibly repeat that feat, especially given the general weakness of the Berlinale competition this year.

As such, "On the Path" should interest buyers and festival programmers in all territories, especially because it offers a balanced and illuminating look at the clash between secular Islam and the Wahhabi brand of Islamic fundamentalism that is gaining strength throughout the Muslim world.

Luna and Amar are a happy couple, deeply in love. Their only problem is that they haven't been able to conceive a child. Amar, who works as an air traffic controller, also has a drinking problem and when he is discovered drinking on the job, he's fired. He runs into Bahrija, an old friend from the Bosnian war whom he hasn't seen in years, and Bahrija offers him a job teaching computer skills to kids at the fundamentalist camp he has set up on a faraway lake. Amar finds peace and contentment there, stops drinking, and gradually becomes more attracted to fundamentalism himself. But the thoroughly secular Luna, who's a flight attendant, can't walk that path with him and a serious rift develops in their relationship.

Perhaps the best -- and potentially the worst -- thing about "On the Path" is that it's based on an exceptionally clear-cut, well-developed, classic screenplay. There is no fancy camera work, but there are defined acts, coherent character arcs and an unambiguous central conflict, all of which make the film accessible and tightly controlled, but also perhaps a bit stodgy.

What saves it from these possible pitfalls are several things. First, the acting is top-notch and completely believable. Second, director Zbanic has a wonderful way of upgrading what could have been merely a TV film by capturing tiny, idiosyncratic character details (for example, the mobile phone camera Luna plays with throughout, or when she jumps through the window of Amar's car to say goodbye). A third strong point is that the film has an uncommon depth that derives from tragedies that occurred during the war -- for example, the death of Luna's mother and the loss of the family home -- which go a long way toward explaining why most of the female survivors aren't too keen on being encased in a chador.

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Most important, though, Zbanic is for the most part evenhanded in her approach. While the fundamentalists are seen through Luna's eyes as strange, nevertheless they are never portrayed as terrorists or crazy people. Amar looks a little foolish when he so quickly adopts their ways (no more sleeping with Luna before they get married; no more revealing clothes for her, etc.), but he also no longer drinks. He is at his most sanctimonious when he denounces Luna's grandparents for celebrating a holiday with alcohol.

Most subtly of all, Luna's supposedly wonderful life as a liberated secular woman doesn't look all that great when she's at a strobe-filled night club smoking, drinking, and passing out. Despite Zbanic's fairness, though, it's clear by the end that she does not believe the veil portends anything good for a Muslim woman.

Venue: Berlin International Film Festival -- Competition
Production companies: Deblokada, coop99 filmproduktion, Pola Pandora Filmproduktion, Ziva Production
Cast: Zrinka Cvitesic, Leon Lucev, Ermin Bravo, Mirjana Karanovic, Marija Kohn
Director: Jasmila Zbanic
Screenwriter: Jasmila Zbanic
Producer: Damir Ibrahimovic, Bruno Wagner, Barbara Albert, Karl Baumgartner, Raimond Goebel, Leon Lucev
Director of photography: Christine A. Maier
Production designer: Lada Maglajlic, Amir Vuk
Music: Brano Jakubovic
Costume designer: Lejla Hodzic
Editor: Niki Mossbock
Sales: The Match Factory
No rating, 100 minutes
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