by thepingofpong

Anyone who has schooled in Nigeria will be familiar with the debate format pitting professions against one another: doctors or teachers? Lawyers or Engineers?  Serbia’s first film at the European Film Festival, Besa (which translated loosely, means Pledge), adds one more: students or soldiers— when the latter invades a school demanding rations.

When Filip, a Serbian headmaster, is summoned to serve his country during the Astro-Hungarian war on Serbia which will eventually become the First World War, he has to leave the attractive Lea, his wife in the care of Azem, an elderly Albanian who works as school custodian. While Filip is away, Lea and Azem go from mutual suspicion, to tolerance, to friendship and finally to the semblance of a romance.

The pledge or promise referred to in the title is an oath taken by Albanians to protect someone even if carrying it out means death. This Besa leads to Azem’s imprisonment and torture when he confronts an Astro-Hungarian officer who has designs on Lea. It also leads the characters through a path trod in Lost In Translation, another film where a promising romance is abandoned. But where that film allowed for a kiss, the closest Lea and Azem get to intimacy is a passionate moment where bodies are caressed and kisses exchanged without touching. It is a romance thwarted by society’s demands.

Beyond the intimacies, outside a war rages and soon the school is occupied by soldiers who demand access to the school’s stock despite inadequate rations for the students. Lea is suspected of been a spy since she is Slovenian- which at the time was under the Astro-Hungarian Empire. She also has to endure house arrest since some Serbians view her as the enemy.

By putting Lea and Azem in one room, director Srdjan Karanovic, contrasts several opposites: Serbian-Albanian; Slovenian-Albanian; Educated woman-Illiterate Man; Muslim-Orthodox Christianity. The friendship and romance that forms, though nipped in the bud, affirm that stripped of labels; a man is a man and a woman, a woman.

Yet the most compelling contrast is that between love and duty. Or perhaps between temptation and duty. In Besa duty wins. Ha. If only it were so in life!

As for the student-soldier question, a character says, “It’s war. Who could study?” A reminder that during war, priorities are altered. In times of peace, that debate will be won by the former.

In times of war? I am not so sure.