DARA OF JASENOVAC (2021)
Nataša Ninković, Vuk Kostić, Nataša Drakulić, Biljana Čekić, Marko Janketić, Igor Djordjević, Alisa Radaković, Ana Lečić, Tatjana Kecman, Anja Stanić Ilić, Marko Pipić, Petar Durdivić
Directed by Peter Antonijević
There have been many films about the Holocaust but “Dara of Jasenovac” by director Peter Antonijević is the first film about the Jasenovac concentration camp in Slavonia, one of the largest in Europe, run by the fascist Ustaše terrorist regime. Told through the eyes of 10-year-old Dara (Biljana Čekić), the atrocities on display in Serbia’s 2021 Oscar submission are relentless and grueling to watch especially when the focus turns to children. Historically significant, but the film remains devoid of hope until the bitter end making this a tough watch.
Based on first-hand accounts from Holocaust survivors, the film opens as Serbian men, women, and children are forced to march down a rural road toward a train that will usher them to the Jasenovac concentration camp, the only such European facility run by non-Germans. In the crowd is wide-eyed Dara, a 10-year-old who doesn’t realize the horrors that await her family which includes mother Nada (Anja Stanić Ilić), older brother Jovo (Marko Pipić), and baby brother Bude.
The Ustaše modeled themselves after the Nazis, exterminating Serbs, Jews, and Roma. But without gas chambers, the film illustrates the sadistic ways the prisoners of the extermination camp were slaughtered including a game of musical chairs where the losers getting bludgeoned with a sledgehammer or their throats are slit.
In one scene a Nazi officer is invited to dine with the Ustaše commanders and even he seems offended by the fascist Croatian regime’s murderous tactics. The whole scene is hard to swallow and off-balance as Jasenovac’s leader Maks Luburić (Marko Janketić) and the other commanders come off as leftovers from Tarantino’s “Inglourious Basterds.” There’s also a fair amount of CGI blood splatter that accompanies each kill. Antonijević elevates each scene to 11, which detracts from the authenticity of the moment. A little restraint would have gone a long way. Did we need to see an incestuous sex scene with Ustaše commanders who get turned on by the violence?
“Dara of Jasenovac” benefits from the performance of newcomer Biljana Čekić as our 10-year-old heroine who was cast from over 1,500 children. It’s a very realistic and natural performance, especially amazing since she’s a non-actor who hails from a small village in modern-day Bosnia. Dara becomes our eyes as she witnesses many of the Ustaše’s barbaric crimes, usually while hiding off in the distance.
Zlatan Vidović plays Dara’s father Mile who is a prisoner at the nearby Gradina extermination camp. He is forced to dispose of bodies in a mass grave, often searching the dead for his family. Every day they are not among the casualties, is another day of hope for Miles and motivation to attempt an escape.
The film covers an important chapter of World War II rarely seen. As a dramatic work of fiction based on actual events, the exaggerated tone detracts from the overall message. “Dara of Jasenovac” would have been better suited as a documentary minus the inflated reenactments.
(2 1/2 stars)
Now showing at the Landmark River Oaks Houston