With Mom (Sa Mamom): Sarajevo Review

Love, sex and death in Sarajevo.

Bittersweet portrait of a traumatized, conflicted family in contemporary Bosnia.

An emotionally charged portrait of family power struggles, budding sexuality and terminal illness set in contemporary Sarajevo, With Mom is a classy second feature from the young Bosnian writer-director Faruk Loncarevic. It stars Marija Pikic, the haunted beauty who co-starred in last year’s Cannes prize-winner Children of Sarajevo, and Mira Furlan, the seasoned stage veteran who was once a regular on the US sci-fi series Babylon 5. Premiered in competition at the Sarajevo Film Festival this week, where it is a strong prize contender, Loncarevic’s classy study in family dynamics looks certain of further festival play. It should also appeal to the kind of discerning overseas audiences who enjoyed recent arthouse break-out hits from Iran and Romania.

Though With Mom is ostensibly an ensemble drama, Pikic and Furlan dominate the story as a mother and daughter locked in a battle of wills right to the bitter end. Pikic plays Berina, a sensitive young woman and aspiring painter from a middle-class Sarajevo family. Dying of cancer in her fifties, Berina’s mother Jasna (Furlan) is a domineering bully who still rules the family like a force of nature, pouring bitter scorn on her timid husband Mladen (Branko Djuric) and cowering daughters even as they try to offer sympathetic support. “Don’t touch me!” she snarls from her death bed. “Didn’t you hurt me enough?”

It is a bold move for Loncarevic and Furlan to paint a dying woman in such unsympathetic but non-judgmental colors. Jasna may be a passive-aggressive tyrant, but she is multi-layered and wholly believable. As her mother weakens, Berina begins to act in an increasingly erratic manner. She smears her naked body in paint, contemplates suicide, and initiates a highly charged relationship with a handsome Muslim boy after experiencing a rush of intense emotion towards him in a mosque. Meanwhile, the glumly downtrodden Mladen resorts to the guilty thrill of pornography and fending off flirtatious advances from work colleagues. One of the film’s recurring motifs is the powerful, surprising flood of sexual desire that often accompanies grief.

Elegantly shot in crisp autumnal hues by Oleg Mutu, the award-winning in-house cinematographer of Romanian New Wave cinema, With Mom treats potentially mawkish, sensational subject matter with admirable nuance and understatement. Indeed, it is possibly too subtle at times, notably during apparently random vignettes like Berina’s musical interlude at a punk rock club. That said, the performances are strong enough to knit together even the most disconnected scenes. Loncarevic also maintains a delicate tonal balance throughout, allowing wordless montages of empty parking lots or snow-lined streets to speak volumes about the anguished emotional fireworks going on just below the surface, just outside the frame.

Production companies: SCCA/Pro.Ba, Vertigo/Emotionfilm, Detailfilm, Restart

Producers: Amra Baksic Camo, Adlis Dapo

Starring: Marija Pikic, Mira Furlan, Branko Djuric

Director: Faruk Loncarevic

Writer: Faruk Loncarevic

Cinematographer: Oleg Mutu

Editors: Natasa Damnjanovic, Rezinald Simek

Sales company: SCCA/Pro.Ba

Unrated, 80 minutes