One of the few highlights of the Berlin Film Festival’s disappointing 2010 line-up was Jasmila Zbanic’s sophomore film, “On the Path”: A brilliantly audacious tale of the disintegrating relationship between Luna (Zrinka Cvitesic), a liberal-minded air-stewardess, and her partner Amar (Leon Lucev), a war veteran gradually drawn to conservative Wahhabism after getting fired from his job.
Refraining from the judgmental tone that usually ruins similar stories, former Golden Bear winner Zbanic (“Grbavica: The Land of My Dreams”) pits two different, fundamentally contrasting lifestyles against each other. She unmistakably champions the tolerant, secular Islam Bosnia has long embraced over the ultra-orthodox Wahhabism that has swept parts of the former Yugoslavian state after the war.
But she arrives to her conclusion after making a sound argument, without demonizing the other party. On the contrary, she shows a profound understanding for the new converts, investigating the effect of post-war trauma and economic setbacks on their newly-adopted beliefs; the comfort and undoubtable absolution they find in that most extreme form of Islam.
At the center of this little gem is the performance of Cvitesic, the young Croatian rising star who was the hot favorite to win the award for best actress before Shinobu Terajima snatched it for her work in “Caterpillar.” It was one of the biggest upsets of the fest.
Fortunately, the Alexandria Film Festival for Mediterranean Countries righted this wrong by awarding her the Best Actress award in its recently wrapped edition.
Cvitesic’s Luna is far from simple. A passionate lover. A defiant free spirit. A compassionate companion. A strong good-headed feminist. Cvitesic steadily unpeels the thick layers of her character without losing grasp of the character’s essence. She plays Luna with astonishing blend of pathos, vulnerability, ire and stubbornness. And she makes it looks so easy.
Cvitesic owns the screen in every frame she’s in with her effortless naturalism. It’s somewhat difficult not to fall in love with Luna who remains sympathetic throughout the story, even in her most irrational, self-destructive moments. Without a doubt, this is a star-making performance — one that places her in the same league as Europe’s most gifted young actresses.
I met up with Cvitesic a couple of weeks ago in Alexandria shortly before the screening of “On the Path.” Looking every bit the star you’d imagine her to be, the easy-going Cvitesic unpretentiously radiates a star-like quality with her intelligence, earnestness, transparent sensuality, and confidence.
Originally a theater actress and a member of the Croatian National Theatre since 2005, the 31-year-old Cvitesic refined her craft by performing Shakespeare, Oscar Wilde and Chekov. Her big break came with Hrvoje Hribar’s hit comedy “What Is a Man without a Moustache?” in 2005. Her effervescent turn as a young widow who falls in love with the local priest of a small Croatian village won her best actress award at the Pula and Sarajevo film festivals.
Subsequent performances in successful movies, musicals and TV serials led her to be chosen for the Croatian version of “Dancing with the Stars,” for which she won the title in its first season.
None of her previous roles though could’ve prepared her for the gravity of Luna.
Auditions for the film were held in four countries: Croatia, Serbia, Bosnia and Slovenia. The last phase of the unusual eight-month audition lasted for seven days.
“She took us on a small island in Croatia where nobody lives,” Cvitesic told Daily News Egypt. “We did a workshop and the last day we had a public presentation for kids and old people. It was very strange,” she laughs.
Because of the strong rapport she established with “Moustache” star Lucev, who also starred in “Grbavica,” Zbanic was not keen on casting Cvitesic before she finally decided to give her the role.
Luna was not an easy challenge for Cvitesic.
“It was different from everything else I did before, in terms of the language, the culture and working for the first time with a female director.”
Prior to her involvement with this project, Cvitesic had little knowledge of the Bosnian culture. To prepare for her role, she spent five months in Sarajevo. She was forbidden to speak any other language but Bosnian for the entire duration of the shooting. Zbanic also hired a young native Sarajevo woman who got her acquainted with every aspect of the Bosnian capital.
In addition, Cvitesic met up with two ex-Wahhabists Zbanic brought in as consultants for the film.
“Were you surprised by the rather reserved attitude of these women?” I asked her. “I was actually surprised by how European they were,” she replied. “They were cheerful, very open. Leon, though, was pretty deep in his character. I didn’t want to go that deep or discover too much because my character doesn’t.”
What attracted Cvitesic the most to Luna is her complexity. “She’s not black and white,” she said. “I saw lots of contradictions in her and that gave me a large area to explore, as an actress and as a person. And I really like how she has this very fragile side and this strong side. I think every woman has that. And in many ways, this has allowed me, as Zrinka, to finish my growing up.”
The biggest criticism the film received from some Arab critics is its lack of a middle-ground; that the two lifestyles of the films’ protagonists are the polar opposite of each other. Cvitesic doesn’t agree.
“I don’t believe that Luna is too liberal. She is very western; she’s very open; she’s very modern. But she’s also a Muslim; she fasts during Ramadan. Celebrates Eid. She’s actually very moderate.
“Most of the young people in Sarajevo are actually like that. They are Muslims, they’re very connected to their culture, but they also drink, party till 5 am and travel all [around the] world. This is modern Sarajevo.”
Cvitesic also believes that Zbanic has no agenda or message. “I don’t think she’s reaching for anything. She’s just showing how it is today in Sarajevo, and Luna is representative of the young people. And I think she gives you the space to make your judgment and draw your own answers.”
“On the Path” had its Bosnian premiere right after Berlin. The reaction of the audience was quite unexpected.
“Young people loved it. The older generations were a bit disappointed. They expected Jasmila to go after the Wahhabists and attack them more harshly. They wanted her to demonize them, to show the world how bad they are. That’s not Jasmila’s style though.”
The film attracted extensive media coverage in Bosnia. Several publications anticipated an attack from fanatical Muslim groups. Even the US Embassy in Bosnia offered protection to Zbanic and her crew. Neither Zbanic nor her cast members ended up facing any difficulties.
“I think people thought the film was [more] dangerous than it really was,” Cvitesic said.
The timely social and cultural aspects aside, the main classical theme of the film — a couple growing apart — is a universal one that seems to have struck a nerve with diverse international audiences.
“At the Berlinale, a German woman came up to Jasmila and told her that this movie is about her life,” Cvitesic said. “She explained that her husband works for Microsoft. He works every day for 10 hours. When he comes home, all he does is read books about Microsoft and works on his computer. Microsoft is 24 hours in his mind. He forgets me, home, kids … everything.”
“’This is my life,’ the woman told her. ‘Microsoft is the Wahhabism of my life.’”
There’s a clear link between “Grbavica” and “On the Path.” Both tell stories of women forced to have children they don’t want. The key distinction between the two is that in “Grbavica,” Esma, the leading character, is forced to have her daughter (she’s raped by a Serbian soldier). She has no choice. Luna, on the other hand, does. And the question Zbanic puts forward at the end is: Since Luna does have the choice to keep her baby, would she keep the child despite the fact that her relationship with Amar is doomed? Zbanic keeps her ending open, although she does hint at the decision Luna will take.
For Cvitesic, the different prospects the ending suggests was far more problematic.
“Three days before the end of the shooting, I needed to decide, as an actress, whether she does have the baby, or she doesn’t; whether she goes back to Amar or she doesn’t,” Cvitesic said. “Jasmila told me, ‘I don’t care. It’s up to you. Just have in your head and in your heart whatever you think is right.’
“My feeling was that she needs more time to find peace, to deal with the past and having a closure before making that decision.”
Cvitesic’s outstanding performance in “On the Path” earned her a Shooting Star Award; an annual prize granted to 10 young European actors at the Berlinale. Part of the European Film Promotion network, the one-year initiative supports and promotes Europe’s up-and-coming talents, taking them to several film festivals and introducing them to the continent’s biggest agents, casting directors and producers.
Former recipients of the award include Daniel Craig, Rachel Weisz, Moritz Bleibtreu, Ludivine Sagnier and Carey Mulligan.
In Berlin, she signed with famed London-based agent Christian Hodell, representative of Oscar winners Tilda Swinton, Angelica Huston and Emma Thompson.
“I’ve started to go to auditions … big ones,” she smiles. “So I’m just waiting now to see what happens.”
Up next for Cvitesic is another leading role in a new Croatian production based on a true story about a Croatian Jewish theater star during World War II. She’s also lined up for Zbanic’s next movie, the script for which is still currently being written.
“On the Path” will be screened next at the Hamptons International Film Festival, Doha Tribeca Film Festival and Rome Film Festival.
Cvitesic receiving the Best Actress Award at the Alexandria Film Festival