"The Optimists": Paskaljevic's Renewed Candide By Gabriele Barrera
Welcome back, Goran Paskaljevic. It’s nice to see you looking happy. And in the post-Milosevic years, in your post-Milosevic last works, just like The Optimists (Optimisti, Serbia 2006), things are looking very good. Or not? A group of people are in a pond of strange mud, or in a pond of shit, maybe. But without shuddering in revulsion, like in a hyper-pessimistic remake of the already pessimistic Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Salo, or the 120 Days of Sodom (Salò o le 120 giornate di Sodoma, Italy, 1975), as far as possible. They are pond life! Or not? Another group of people live in a country destroyed by flooding, or by the war, maybe. Without reacting or overreacting, but otherwise, in a strange way, with a hypnotic eye to see and to stand the tragic reality. And the spectator thinks: “You’ll have to do something!”, like in a hyper-caustic remake of the already caustic Dino Risi’s I mostri (Italy/France, 1963), if it is possible at all. They are foolish enough to do nothing! Or not? Lastly, in a new Thomas Stearns Eliot’s Waste Land (1922), in a mind-blowing No Man’s Land (Danis Tanovic, Bosnia-Herzegovina/Slovenia 2001), a fat Serbian little child is absolutely thrilled at the idea of sticking all the pigs of his father, a farmer as tubby as his pigs, maybe. But without any aid from a child psychiatrist, like in a hyper-cynical remake of the already cynical Pigpen (Porcile, by Pier Paolo Pasolini again, Italy 1969), even if it’s hardly thinkable. He’s a little monster! Or not?
Likewise in the Candide (1759) by François Marie Arouet (better known as Voltaire), there are no easy answers to Goran Paskalievic’s questions, because the only answer is the optimism: the height of absurdity. They are The Optimists, a population with a narrow choice, perhaps without a choice, except the optimism. Then, the optimism, the effort to think positively — even if it’s a nonsense — it is definitely the smart choice. Or not? And, above all, are we sure we’ve selected a different way of life? A different optimism? A different absurd idea of progress and positive-ness, in our quiet and not-post-Milosevic countries?
Paskaljevic’s cinema-speech, with his new and long awaited The Optimists, reflects the absurd quietness and optimism of each of us, in our apparently peaceful countries, with the same stylistical corrosiveness and the same allegorical narration of his well-known Cabaret Balkan (Bure baruta, Federal Republic of Yugoslavia/Republic of Macedonia/France/Greece/Turkey, 1998, a.k.a. The Powder Keg). Moreover, telling the history with his apparently small-stories, now Paskaljevic closes a big cinematographic trilogy, from Cabaret Balkan through the metaphors of How Harry Became a Tree (UK/France/Italy/Ireland 2001) and now to The Optimists. It’s a trilogy with an interesting modulation of the same style, just like the Trilogy of Life by Pier Paolo Pasolini, from The Decameron (Il Decameron, Italy/France/RFT, 1971), a movie-shock like Cabaret Balkan, to The Canterbury Tales (I racconti di Canterbury, Italy 1972), an interlude like How Harry Became a Tree and Arabian Nights (Il fiore delle Mille e una Notte, Italy/France 1974), with the same dreamlike poetical-ness of The Optimists. But… a very simple question: Where are the spectacular gypsy-festivals, the waters and flames, the epic marriages, the Balkan-life stereotypes? A very simple answer: Paskaljevic is not Kusturica, and that’s all.
The more you study The Optimists, the more you realise you don’t view enough. For example, Voltaire meets the classic fairy-tales Village Evenings Near Dikanka (1831-1832) by Nikolaj Vasil’evic Gogol. The complexity and the musicality of his camera movements meet the light structure of The Optimists (which is not an only-one-story, but a five-tales-movie, in a homage to the Italian comedy of the Sixties). The strange power of observation maximises the shades of all the character’s psychology and always it minimises the danger of a grandiloquent speech. The wide-angle-lens — it’s another example of this complexity — visualise the same point of view of the characters, with a not-so-real visual perception of the reality. And — as stated above — without making a Balkan-film with songs, dances, drinks, petty crimes, violent arguments in a choreographic Kusturica-chaos: thanks for it, Goran Paskaljevic. The optimist Candide says: “Il faut cultiver nôtre jardin2, and so Voltaire finishes his book. Paskaljevic’s pessimism is stronger than any optimism but — perhaps — only in the act of movie-making, in a tragic reality, it’s an optimistic thought. For this reason, Goran Paskaljevic: “Il faut cultiver vôtre cinéma”.
Post Scriptum. The irony of fate? Paskaljevic’s The Optimists was only in competition just in Geneva, Cinéma Tout Ecran 2006, Switzerland. And the same country, not the Balkans, was the location (Carouge, Canton Geneva, and Rolle, Canton de Vaud) for arguably the most radical movie of the past about the Balkan wars: For Ever Mozart by Jean-Luc Godard (Switzerland/France, 1996).