Veteran Serbian filmmaker Goran Paskaljevic stages a bleak, five-episode circus of false hopes and cursed luck in The Optimists, which, though characteristically lacking the phantasmagoric fireworks of his contemporary Emir Kusturica's films, supplies the mournful irony of acclaimed Paskaljevic features like Cabaret Balkan. Co-written with his son Vladimir, and supplying four sizable roles (plus a cameo as a corpse) for charismatic character actor Lazar Ristovski, this autumnal statement compensates for its fixed despair with bracing wit and a willingness to see acceptance of misery as the best of all possible options. Beginning with a lengthy shot of a poker-faced Ristovski, perched somewhere on the spectrum from con artist to madman, surveying a tableau of demolished homes in the aftermath of a rural flood, the Paskaljevics' characters proceed non-heroically through a landscape of doom as self-interested Candides asking, "How can I go on, even now?"
That first segment's savior-charlatan, offering post-traumatic comfort through hypnosis and a chant of "Everything's so great that it can't be better," enjoys only a few minutes of indulgence and half-hearted conversions before he finds himself suspected of theft and cuffed about the head by a weary police inspector. In more prosperous circumstances, a successful hog butcher (Ristovski again) befuddles a doctor (Nebojsa Glogovac) and his ambulance driver with a preemptive summons for his own heart attack, due to be induced by his porcine son, addicted to willy-nilly knifing of beasts since winning his first swine-slaughtering medal. In episode three, with the buffoonery dialed down a bit, a gloomy young man (Viktor Savic) left in debt by the death of his gambling father plays the slots in the village's humble "casino," losing the funeral money while a cackling, terminally ill woman hits an unending series of jackpots at a neighboring machine. The duties and expectations of family and community life are given lip service in this post-Milosevic milieu, but only to a point; the son addresses Dad's canister of ashes with a damning eulogy, and the enriched, dying hag tells him that she'd share her winnings, "but I don't want to corrupt young people."
Paskaljevic dares the most in the last two tales of The Optimists, allowing tragedy and pathos to partner with his taste for antic nightmares. Ristovski plays it straight as a steelworker who, finding that his daughter has been raped by the foundry owner (in a grotesque, mercifully brief assault inside a rusty trailer, pigeon wings flapping forlornly on the soundtrack), grabs a rifle to confront the perpetrator. No kind of closure, violent or judicial, prevails, but an appalling humiliation on the hellish, molten glow of the plant floor. This rhymes with the willful, illusory salvation of the finale, as a busload of ailing outpatients, abandoned by a fraudulent benefactor who promised them healing waters, wade into a muddy pond, determined to affect that it's a restorative spring. "I think I can see," a blind girl unpersuasively stammers to her father, and Paskaljevic offers such aching, self-deluding lies as the quintessence of optimism.
Goran Paskaljevic's The Optimists screens from July 28 – August 3 at MoMA. For more information, click here.