The White Fortress uses aspects of genres like the crime film and the fairy tale to tell a visually stunning, ill-fated teen romance story in post-war Sarajevo.
Post-war Sarajevo is a city where both the affluent and the disadvantaged lack opportunity; a city that once held space for dreaming of the future, of romance and culture, but no longer does. Writer/director Igor Drljača described it as such when he envisioned The White Fortress (Faibja) as a ‘coming-of-age romance’ with the ‘trappings of a fairy tale’ under the guise of a ‘mystery thriller’. The film is certainly an amalgamation of all three of those things, but is in itself something quite unique and beguiling.
Faruk (Pavle Čemerikić) is poor, living with his ailing grandmother (Irena Mulamuhić) and earning as much as he can via a combination of scrap metal collecting and petty crime. Mona (Sumeja Dardagan) is rich, the daughter of bureaucrat parents, attending an international school. The pair are not destined to cross paths and yet they do; and as they fall for each other, the realities of their polar opposite existences threaten any burgeoning romance.
The White Fortress is beautiful, both in its visuals and it’s moments of intimacy. Čemerikić and Dardagan have a really sweet, authentic chemistry and the moments where the film focuses on their connection are when it really shines. There’s a whiff of Romeo and Juliet in their against-all-odds romance, but instead of their warring families throwing a spanner in the works, it’s warring areas of society. Mona lives a very privileged existence; Faruk does not. Mona has an opportunity for a better future (however unwilling she is to move to Canada); Faruk does not.
It’s a well-worn tale and Drljača doesn’t delve too deeply into the issue of class disparity, which is a bit of a shame, but there’s enough nuance that it doesn’t feel tired or overly familiar, nor does it feel too underdeveloped. The performances are really impressive, and even if the tight runtime means it feels as though the complexities of their feelings for each other could have been explored further, it also feels intentional. Their connection is strong but fleeting; it was never meant to take any more hold than it did. And in that short time they learned the essence of each other, as the trivialities and banalities of their everyday lives became less important whilst they were together.
Director of Photography Erol Zubčević has crafted something truly stunning that finds beauty in the run-down high rises of Faruk’s world and merges it with the dream-like locales he takes Mona on their dates. It’s this aspect that emphasises the ‘fairy tale’, as the film flips between brilliant sunshine, lens flares and the glare of a bright, stone city to the immersive darkness of night. It’s a palette of opposites, mirroring Faruk and Mona’s relationship, that appear alongside one another in a really impressive timelapse towards the end of the film, but are otherwise incapable of existing together. It’s very evocative, and emphasises both the dream-like sequences and the harsher realities of their situations. It also centres Sarajevo as almost a character in the film in its own right, a looming presence that feels bright and burgeoning for Mona, but glaring and oppressive to Faruk.
The film is a melting pot of genre, dipping its toes into the world of shady mobsters and the pressures of trying to earn any living necessary, as well as the heightened emotions of young love and the secrecy of seeing someone you shouldn’t. Neither of these avenues get explored in any particular depth, and a longer edit of this film might have fleshed its genre trappings out a bit more, might have given a better picture of Sarajevo and the influence is has on Faruk and Mona’s lives. But ultimately it would have lost the ‘fairy tale’ magic. Theirs is a fleeting romance, a bright spark that’s retold as a story with the sparkle of nostalgia, and encapsulated beautifully within Drljača’s film.
The White Fortress will be released in select US theaters and on Digital Platforms on April 22, 2022.