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MOVIE REVIEW

Waking up from a nightmare in Bosnia

In "Grbavica: The Land of My Dreams," Mirjana Karanovic (left) and Jasna Ornela Berry play women in Sarajevo trying to rebuild their lives in the aftermath of the Bosnian war.

You can't see the war in "Grbavica: The Land of My Dreams ," but it's there. A pained, clear-eyed drama about the things that can and can't be forgiven, it's a striking debut from Bosnian director Jasmila Zbanic , a first film only in its few predictable patches. Above all it gives a female aesthetic sensibility to a region and an era stereotyped as brutally male. There are bruises here, and Zbanic insists they won't fade until everyone -- villains, victims, innocents -- acknowledges them.

The year is 2005, a decade after the Dayton Accords ended the three-year Bosnian war, and life in Sarajevo remains Darwinian. "Grbavica" paints a sour portrait of a city where men are measured by the size of their guns and women either skulk or strut. It feels like Tony Soprano's New Jersey with a Slavic accent.

Esma (Mirjana Karanovic ) is one of the skulkers, a dowdy middle-aged woman with large, liquid eyes and shell - shock ed nerves. Desperate to earn money to pay for a school trip for her adolescent daughter, Sara (Luna Mijovic ), she takes a waitressing job in a disco run by a thuggish local kingpin (Bogdan Diklic ). Whatever she experienced during the war wells up on a nightly basis, which doesn't go unnoticed by a kindly bouncer named Pelda (Leon Lucev ).

This very tentative romance isn't the strongest of story lines, but "Grbavica" mines it for scorched-earth humanism and a bit of gallows humor. These are people who can smile at a story about mistaking a corpse exhumed from a mass grave for one's father -- and still going to the funeral after realizing the error. False hope is better than none.

Gradually the film's focus shifts from Esma and the past to Sara and the future. It's not a promising one. The girl's a rebellious lout with a baby face and anarchic thoughts, and she meets a fellow hardcase, a boy named Samir (Kenan Catic ), at the precise moment her sexuality starts rattling the cage. The two bond over vanished fathers who are shaheed, Bosnian freedom fighters who died at the hands of the Serbs, although Sara is oddly sketchy on the details. There's so much her mother hasn't told her.

She doesn't guess, but you probably will, since "Grbavica" doesn't keep its secrets very well. The title comes from the Sarajevo neighborhood where Esma lives and where she underwent her wartime cruelties, the nature of which is a matter of historical record. Zbanic understands her countrymen know what happened to women like this, and she knows they don't want to confront it. The film looks away until it no longer can.

The admirable feminist agenda occasionally trips up the narrative, but the film's performances keep it on track. Karanovic is a veteran of Emir Kusturica movies, including his Oscar-nominee "When Father Was Away on Business ," and she gives Esma a wary but insistent soul.

A sequence set in a woman's therapy group is mildly didactic but also lifted by a shot of the participants huddled, eyes closed, listening to a throaty Bosnian folk song. Are they dead, or just communing with the dead? "Grbavica" says the difference is a matter of time and absolution.

Ty Burr can be reached at tburr@globe.com. For more on movies, go to boston.com/ae/movies/blog.

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