Quo vadis, Aida? takes place over a few days in July 1995, in the small town of Srebrenica in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and if that date in connection to that place has any meaning to you, you already know more or less exactly what kind of movie you're in for. And also, maybe you don't. What Quo vadis, Aida? isn't is a droning history lesson that wants us to learn Very Important Lessons about how extremely bad the Bosnian War of 1992-1995 was, and to be given a stock message movie "never forget" moral concerning the massacre of 8000 Bosniak men in Srebrenica, one of the main events that catalysed international outrage against the aggression of the Bosnian Serbs. What it is, instead, is a tightly-focused character drama, inspired by a true story, built around a Bosniak woman named Aida (Jasna Đuričić) who served as a translator for the United Nations. As the days of mid-July creep along, Aida grows increasingly concerned, thanks to her privileged knowledge of negotiations, that things are about to get unfathomably bad, and so she tries to use her position to secure spots on the evacuation lists for her husband (Izudin Bajrović) and their two teenage sons (Boris Ler and Dino Bajrović). Invariably, she gets stonewalled or ignored, and as things do start to get visibly worse, this project shifts from a troubling concern in her mind to an all-consuming terror that if she can't do anything, her family will not survive.

This is to say: you come for a European art film about war and genocide, you had best not hope for frolics and uplift and fun. But Quo vadis, Aida? (which literally means "What are you going, Aida?", but the implied meaning is a little bit closer to "what are you going to do?") isn't just a solemn dirge that wants you to feel bad and considers that a job well done. It is, first and foremost, a human-scale drama, maybe the only way you can actually tell a story about something as purely evil as the Srebrenica massacre and hope to find some way to make it comprehensible and tangible. There is grand total of one scene in the entire 101-minute feature that we view outside of Aida's direct perspective, and while Đuričić isn't in every single shot, she's certainly in most of them. This is Aida's film, and it is focused with increasing intensity on Aida's one, singular goal: to get the men in her life on some official list where she knows they'll be kept as relatively safe as the UN can keep them.

This mercilessly winnowed-down focus is a major part of the reason why Quo vadis, Aida? is so damn good despite all signs pointing towards shabby, feel-bad middlebrow mediocrity (not least that it was nominated for the Academy Award for Best International Feature, though it has the merit of being the best in its nomination class). Aida anchors it. And then, in turn, Đuričić anchors Aida, in an absolute powerhouse of a performance that's a real scorched-earth depiction of barely-articulated terror. It is simply devastating to watch her, simply at the level of tracking her falling facial expressions throughout the movie; when she adds a note of freaked-out panic in her voice, and then turns up the volume on that note, the film reaches a sweaty intensity of anxiety that's absolutely shattering. And then there's the matter of how she walks throughout the movie, with a quick pace that's almost a trot, and frequently involves twisting and spinning in spaces to dodge whatever is getting in her way in the clutter of the UN base, contrast with her forceful shuffle to thrust herself through the crowds that keep gathering.

Đuričić is all it takes to make the movie merely successful; what makes it more than that is the deftness with which writer-director Jasmila Žbanić builds out everything that's happening around Aida. Aesthetically, Quo vadis, Aida? isn't doing anything especially shocking: it has the realistically-motivated handheld camera that one would expect it to have, and while cinematographer Christine A. Maier has done some subtle, clever work in lighting the film with a bit more contrast than could be reasonably described as "realistic", it's all fairly straightforward. But it's very good at being straightforward, with the shaky camerawork so perfectly mirroring Aida's confusion and later undiluted desperation that its hard to imagine what else the film could possibly have done. Žbanić arranges a path through the sets for both Đuričić and the camera that makes the halls of the UN base feel messy and oppressive, and makes the crowds full of terrified Bosniaks feel like a choking sea of human flesh; the film slowly cranks up the tension on the viewer right alongside Aida, by getting shakier and faster throughout its running time.

The story is no less chaotic and anxiety-inducing, a sort of bureaucratic thriller in which the inability of the UN to actually do anything becomes an exhausting omnipresent object, the film's conflict coming out of the situation itself rather than the actions of people. As embodied by Major Franken (Raymond Thiry), the peacekeeping force is almost complete inert throughout Quo vadis, Aida?, and when it's not, it's presented as a malicious force trying to maintain a bad situation rather than benignly trying to help. Mostly, though, it's just there, a big heaping mess that slows down everything for the worse, as embodied by the many scenes where Aida is translating between the Bosniak locals and the foreign agents, and the film insistently presents these exchanges in real-time, often leaving both versions of any given sentence intact across the length of a single shot, the better to make us feel the time wasting by. The cacophany of languages, as heavily-accented English spoken by non-native speakersto other non-native speakers fights for sonic prominence against different flavors of Serb-Croatian, is testimony to the fundamentally unstable mixture of political interests at play in the narrative, making the film sound a bit hopelessly lost even before the story has reached the same point.

A pretty pointed history, then, but it's never privileging that over Aida herself, as the figure on whom the horrible weight of history is bearing down, all the way through to a structurally surprising epilogue. Not everything here works: the climax, and particularly a zoom shot that ends the climax, feel like exactly the pedestrian Oscarbait message movie that Quo vadis, Aida? has so purposefully avoided being. And the insistent focus on Aida ends up making all of the other characters somewhat indistinct except insofar as she reacts to them in unique ways; not a big problem with the UN people, but it's a pity and a limitation that we don't get to know her husbands and sons better (or really at all, in the case of the sons). Even so, the psychological and thematic richness that comes just from Aida's own story is more than enough to give this plenty of heft and emotional resonance. It's a depiction of the human cost of a historical war crime that treats its subject with gravity but not self-importance, and doesn't just rely on dour material to make us feel bad; awfully good for something like this, all things considered, a powerful piece of historical storytelling that deserves to be seen for far more than something as dodgy as being an Oscar nominee.