'Maus': Film Review | Fantastic Fest 2017

Maus Still 1- Fantastic Fest Publicity-H 2017
Courtesy of Fantastic Fest
An effectively nasty captivity film laden with references to real-world ethnic strife.

A couple stranded in the woods deal with a war's long shadow in Yayo Herrero's Bosnia-set thriller.

A captivity thriller set in the long shadow of the mid-1990s Bosnian war, Yayo Herrero's Maus places an injured Bosnian woman in the custody of two mysterious Serbian men and correctly expects things not to go well. The assured feature debut of writer/director Yayo Herrero, it introduces just enough hints of the supernatural and the transgressively political to inspire post-screening conversations — some of which will conclude that the ingredients don't quite add up. Few will argue, though, with the effectiveness of its trapped-in-the-woods tension and the potency of its simmering ethnic hatred.

Lovers Alex (August Wittgenstein) and Selma (Alma Terzic) are on their way to the airport, at the end of a stressful trip, when their car breaks down in the Bosnian forest. Alex, a Berliner, is set to hike off to the nearest village for help, but the camera circles an apprehensive Selma as she objects: She was a child here during the war, and knows that mines are still scattered across this land.

Alex explores despite her protests, and finds a car with some survival gear in it. He's digging through it when Selma meets the car's owners. Spooked by the two men, she sets off a mine and is wounded. In the aftermath, Alex struggles to get cellphone reception while the men go into survival mode — assembling a makeshift stretcher and heading toward their hole-in-the-ground shelter. The strangers have been speaking in a language Alex doesn't understand, but in response to one of his frustrated comments, they speak to him in for the first time in English: "We are not Bosnians, my friend. We are Serbs."

Selma, a Muslim who wears the amulet her father gave her before Serbs killed him, intensifies her prayers, repeating "Ya Hafizu" over and over. But Alex's uncertainty lingers a while, as he hopes the men are simply doing them a good turn under uncomfortable circumstances. Sadly, things get cleared up before long.

As it transforms into a nasty survival picture pitting the travelers against their hosts, Fantastic Fest attendees may pick up on an odd coincidence: Both this film and Mike Flanagan's adaptation of Stephen King's Gerald's Game incorporate the same appallingly misogynistic joke in their dialogue, and both refer to their women-in-jeopardy with the pet name Mouse.

Fortunately for audiences, neither woman proves all that mouselike in the end. Selma, who either imagines a supernatural helper or actually invokes one, rises to the violent occasion; Herrero's carefully blocked action maximizes the shadows of the subterranean setting to keep some things ambiguous. The bloodshed becomes an occasion for Selma to reveal things about her past that Alex has claimed to want to know; what connection Herrero has to this old conflict is uncertain (the director is Spanish, and Spanish locations substitute for Bosnia here), but the idea of generations-spanning grudges clearly animates his imagination. What he means with the film's coda, though, which involves a faraway terrorist attack and another ambiguous apparition, is anybody's guess.

Production company: Apaches Entertainment
Cast: Alma Terzic, August Wittgenstein, Aleksandar Seksan, Sanin Milavic
Director-screenwriter: Yayo Herrero
Producers: Enrique Lopez Lavigne, Jesus Ulled Nadal
Executive producer: Elvira Morales Sales
Production designer: Javier Fernandez
Costume designer: Bubi Escobar
Editor: Jose Manuel Jimenez
Composer: The Youth
Casting director: Diego Betancor
Venue: Fantastic Fest

In English, Serbian
90 minutes