“What does the song
in your dream say, my child?
Mother, I’m singing how I once had a house.
Now I have none, mother.
That’s what the dream says:
that I once had a voice and a language.
Now I have no voice
and no language.”
These are part of the opening words in The Perfect Circle — a lament for a war-scarred Sarajevo — spoken by actor Mustafa Nadarević, and written by Bosnian poet Abdulah Sidran. Shot in the capital in 1996, the same year the Sarajevo siege was lifted, The Perfect Circle was the first feature film made in an independent Bosnia. The cast and crew, led by director Ademir Kenović, shot on location among the ruined streets. We follow Hamza, played by Nadarević: a poet who finds himself taking care of two orphans after he opts to stay in the city during the siege whilst his family seeks refuge elsewhere. The Perfect Circle is quintessentially Sarajevo. Its characters could not exist without Sarajevo, and Sarajevo could not exist without them.
A giant of the Yugoslav acting world, Mustafa Nadarević — who passed away on 22 November 2020 — did not just bring his characters to life. He was able to tap deeply into the soul of a city. Born in Banja Luka, he studied first at Sarajevo’s Academy of Performing Arts before completing his studies in Zagreb, where he acted in the Croatian National Theatre, alongside a prolific career in TV and film. The news of his death prompted an outpouring of testaments as to his talents from across the former Yugoslavia.
How he is remembered partly depends on which generation you ask. He made his name by appearing in 80s Yugoslav film and TV, starting with his first iconic role as Engineer Duje in Split-set TV series Velo Misto (1980), generally playing mild-mannered neurotic intellectuals. He is equally well recognised as Izet Fazlinović in the Sarajevo-set sitcom Crazy, Confused, Normal (2007-2020), which gave him a new kind of mass popularity across the Balkans. As the alcoholic, Yugonostalgic grandpa whose buffoonery gives the show much of its laughs, he plays an instantly recognisable archetype for domestic audiences — many of whom can pick out an Izet Fazlinović in their own families.
In those Yugoslav-era films, Nadarević often played small, meek men without much moral backbone. As Leone Glembaj in The Glembays (1988, dir: Antun Vrdoljak) – a film adaptation of a Miroslav Krleža play, with Nadarević reprising his stage role – he is the sole artist amidst a corrupt bourgeois family in pre-communist Yugoslavia. His pretences towards moral righteousness are constantly undercut by his connections to the same poisonous family.
As socially awkward concert pianist Mihailo in Déjà vu (1987, dir: Goran Marković), one of the few Yugoslav films to draw on thrillers or horror, rather than drama or comedy, he is a bottle of pent-up neuroses incapable of recognising the reality around him.
In these roles, Nadarević’s eyes seem small and narrow, perpetually anxious or perpetually scrutinizing the world
And, in Emir Kusturica’s Palme D’or winning When Father Was Away on Business (1985), also written by Sidran, he is the apparatchik Žijo, whose jealousies and desires for the same woman as the protagonist’s father sets the plot in motion. In these roles, Nadarević’s eyes seem small and narrow, perpetually anxious or perpetually scrutinizing the world. When Father Was Away on Business also marked something that would become a recurring feature of Nadarević’s roles; it is a quintessentially Sarajevan film, enmeshed within the multiethnic mix of its characters.
Two of Nadarević’s most powerful roles exist away from mainstream domestic recognition. The Perfect Circle is one, while Pjer Žalica’s masterful Days and Hours (2004) is the other. In The Perfect Circle, Sarajevo is a hollowed-out shell of its former self; Hamza frequently turns to fantasies of suicide in his darkest moments. Nadarević refuses to make him a charity case – he is a flesh-and-blood contradiction, both impossibly generous and selfish, frank about the dangers of siege-time Sarajevo, and yet naïve about them too.
The Perfect Circle could have easily been part of the Italian Neorealist movement of the late 1940s – its location-shooting amidst the ruins of the city recalls Rossellini’s Rome, Open City (1945), whilst the starring presence of children recalls De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves (1948). But where those films were often at least punctuated with a flash of hope that something better was around the corner, The Perfect Circle reflects a different mood – not one of despair, but of numbness. Nadarević seems to be constantly battling against this numbness, pushing against the inhumanity around him, but his constant witness to this tragedy threatens to overtake him. With this numbness The Perfect Circle struggles to offer a way forward. That’s no criticism: the film stands as a testament to a time in which the film was produced.
Days and Hours (whose Bosnian title literally translates to At Uncle Idris’s), does offer an olive branch to the future, of which Nadarević’s titular role is key. Fuke (Senad Basić), a plumber, visits his uncle Idris and aunt Sabira (Semka Sokolović-Bertok) to fix their boiler. His car breaks down, forcing him to stay the night, whereby he sleeps in the room of the couple’s only son, Emin, who died in the war. The film treads gently around the evident heartbreak of the whole family, caught between mourning and the future, with Emin’s daughter and widow moving away to Tuzla. The film’s conversations – long, ruminative, and painful, full of details that illuminate the character’s lives – begin to peel away at the trauma and edge towards the future, where grief can exist side-by-side with happiness, instead of as a lead weight. As with The Perfect Circle, Days and Hours is, is deeply rooted in Sarajevo’s landscape. One neighbour tells Fuke that everything and everyone is as close as it can be; ‘’People can see behind the gates, even Idris’s gates. It’s the architecture,” he says.
Nadarević, allows the turmoil and pain of Idris’s loss to sit beneath his expressive, sad eyes. There’s a moment where he sees his granddaughter Aida again (an argument with her mother had resulted in a cold war between the two) where it seems that this pain slips away from his shoulders in an instance; the mandolin which he has been gently cradling for much of the film, playing only tentatively, suddenly seems to find a release, in which the entire neighbourhood joins together in song (it would be cheesy if it weren’t so perfectly pitched and earned). In both The Perfect Circle and Days and Hours, Nadarević’s eyes are wide open, as if in shock, fear or anger at the events of the 90s – as opposed to the narrow-eyed, narrow-minded bureaucrats or the squinting, secretive, spineless men he played in the 80s.
Institutional, infrastructural and funding issues permeate the post-Yugoslav film sphere, but that hasn’t stopped excellent films being made. In the early years of the independent Bosnian film industry, most films dealt with the war – unsurprising given how traumatic and earth-shattering the experience was. The first decade or so of Bosnian cinema, which also included directors such as Srdjan Vuletić, Jasmila Žbanić, Aida Begić and Danis Tanović (many of whom had lived in Sarajevo during the siege) was, in spite of all the issues thrown at it, consistently brilliant.
Nadarević was always exceptionally humble about his performances (in one of his final interviews on the TV channel N1, he insists he treats his work just like any other job). Yet, The Perfect Circle and Days and Hours are more than just “work”. These two key roles of the early independent Bosnian cinema represent something more than just an excellent actor at the peak of his abilities – they represent cinema’s ability to document and record both our worst and best tendencies, to propose ways in which the future can be brighter than the present. Whether that future will ever arrive is a wholly different question altogether.