Esma’s Secret (Grbavica) Review

The Film

It seems churlish to criticise a film that is born out of a terrible man-made disaster like the Bosnian war as anything which brings the iniquities of war to light deserves praise, but in watching it I just wasn't sure why this was a motion picture rather than a play or a TV show. Furthermore, I was taken aback to notice the acclaim the film has had and the awards it has won. It isn't that Esma's Secret is a bad film, it is just that sympathetic story aside there isn't a great deal about the film which is extraordinary or cinematic. Granted it is a debut feature from a national cinema which is still establishing itself, and it is a film from a young woman which deals with a feminine perspective on the experience of war, but the actual film is not exceptional despite these factors. Bar a couple of nice compositions of the frame involving gangsters and a Mosque, and a panorama of Sarajevo, it is difficult to see that this work uses the greater scale of a motion picture any differently than it would smaller stages.

Dramatically, the film is well made and its story and performances are worthy of praise. The tale concentrates on the status that widows of the Bosnian war have through their relationship to the martyrs of the war or shaheed in modern day Bosnia. This is shown through the lives of a mother and daughter who are struggling to get by with the absence of a husband and father, this particular loss is brought into focus through the mother's efforts to pay for a school trip for her wilful daughter. The daughter wants the status of having a martyred father more than the trip and develops a relationship with a boy at school through this shared experience. The mother works nights at a gangster's nightclub to save up for the trip, despite the offer of subsidy for a shaheed's widow, enduring her fears and the separation from her daughter caused by working nights. Like the daughter a possible romantic relationship presents itself through a sympathetic and similarly bereaved bodyguard at the club. Events build to a revelation and the mother and daughter find themselves in conflict because of their desire for the status of shaheed and the past crimes of the war. Choosing to broaden its perspective beyond this small family, the film is also worried about the women who have survived through the war and how they continue to survive through scarce opportunities for work or money. When greater spiritual opportunities present themselves such as love, the women are tortured and imprisoned by its impossibility rather than set free. The war is over but violence still holds sway over their lives.
This is all done effectively enough but the quality of this project is limited. The story becomes overdependent on a twist in the tale which deflects attention from the story's central concern of the emotional core of this family. This twist makes the film into a melodrama when some nicely understated acting had given proceedings a more realistic edge and the film finds itself unravelling rather too late in the day. The care which had been taken in establishing the world of the characters is not replicated in exploring the impact of the revelation on these same people, we are simply left with a sense that everything will be ok because the truth is out. The whole response to the secret's exposure is rather hackneyed as well with some filmic cliches on identity trotted out - the head shaving sequence is something that you have seen in any number of films and are probably heartily sick of. This failure of balance in the exposition undermines the excellent work done by Mirjana Karanovic as Esma and the preternaturally talented Luna Mijovic as the daughter and their characters relationship is dangerously left in kneejerk sentiment rather than the stronger foundations they had built.

Esma's Secret is perfectly fine, well acted, and interesting for its political significance. It just doesn't amount to much more than a TV movie rather than something more accomplished, it is a film which has renown because of international sympathy rather than particular merit. You will probably appreciate it but repeated viewings may yield little.

The Disc

The presentation of the feature is anamorphic and the print used here is in excellent condition. The transfer is not perfect however with a little softness and lack of detail in the overall image as well as a degree of grain, you can see it best in the sky shots where there is little gradation in the colours, leaving a kind of amorphous blue rather than the more subtle colouring you should see. Colours are supposed to be a little muted and the treatment of them is wholly appropriate. The audio track is again not spectacular, but then this is a film which rarely moves away from the mundane in terms of action or setting and therefore all that really matters is that the dialogue is well mixed and distortion is avoided. On these two scores the audio track succeeds. The subtitles are removable and very easy to read and understand.

The extra features only include a statement from the direct in the inlay card which is also reproduced on the disc, and a stills gallery from the film. The director's statement concentrates on "everyday life" and what the director believes lies underneath and serves to explain the rather prosaic approach in the film.


Esma's Secret is impressive for a debut but its downplaying of its story is rather too complete resulting in a film which lacks both the scale or drama necessary for a motion picture. The Dogwoof disc is a satisfactory presentation but I imagine most interested viewers will prefer to rent rather than to buy.

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