Thursday, January 24, 2008

Retrospective Love for Paskaljevic

Some directors’ films are marked by signature themes and motifs. For instance, many of Goran Paskalvejic’s films conclude with running sequences. The Serbian director’s films also tend to take a jaundiced look at the powers that be in his fractious homeland. He is now the subject of an overdue retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art.

Pasklavejic (henceforth abbreviated GP) is best known for Cabaret Balkan (1998, a.k.a. The Powder Keg). It is probably his bleakest, most unrelentingly naturalistic picture, reflecting his horror at a Serbia that could commit the atrocities of the Bosnian War. GP was one of the few Serbian filmmakers to speak out against the Milosevic, soon finding it prudent to relocate in 1992. Cabaret Balkan presents a vision of a Belgrade where mundane encounters can quickly escalate to senseless violence. Introduced by an androgynous nightclub host, it makes Cabaret look like Gigi.

Though his earlier works are not nearly as dark, they do show recurring anti-authoritarian themes, often tweaking the Yugoslav Communist authorities. The NYT misleading writes that GP “worked under dictators as philosophically opposed as Tito and Milosevic.” He certainly lived under both regimes, but as both were Communists, how are they opposed?

Perhaps GP’s most explicit critique of the Communist state came in post Berlin Wall-era 1990 with Time of Miracles. GP regular Miki Manojlovic plays the local Communist strongman, who commandeers the town church, painting over its frescoes to convert it into a new school. What the school teaches sounds more like propaganda than education in a masterfully absurd satirical sequence. However, when the frescoes miraculously reappear despite constant whitewashing, the Party enforcer panics. Things get downright Biblical when the school teacher Lazar appears to be resurrected by a mysterious bearded stranger (look, this is a great film, but maybe not a subtle one). As a result, the local Communist leader resorts to desperate measures to protect Party authority.

GP’s earlier films also offer hints of criticism of the Communist apparatus. Special Treatment projects a surprising amount of physical comedy, while painful, even sinister emotions lurk under the surface. As the story of a martinet doctor overseeing a controversial alcohol addiction program that includes public confessions, it is easy to read wider allegories into the film.

However, GP has helmed some gentle films with heart, like his The Elusive Summer of ’68. It is all about young love and how boring it is to study Marxism, particularly during the summer when an all-women orchestra is visiting provincial Yugoslavia/Serbia from Prague. It is sweet and funny, but the significance of 1968 hangs over the film. In a way, it is a Serbian precursor to the Czech movie musical Rebelove.

GP has a fascinating body of work, which has certainly grown darker in recent years. Do not look for any of it at Netflix though, because none of his films are available on DVD in America. However, MoMA shows the love. The retrospective continues through the month, so check them out on a big screen instead. (Elusive screens again the 30th, Miracles screens again the 31st, and both conclude with running scenes.)