Saturday, July 30, 2011

Laugh or Cry?

The Optimists
Directed by Goran Paskaljevic
Museum of Modern Art, 11 West 53rd Street
July 28-August 3, 2011

In 2008, the Museum of Modern Art showed a retrospective of films by Serbian director Goran Paskaljevic, whose black-comic sensibility is filled with sardonic insights into the complex intertwining of the personal and political still haunting the former Yugoslavia.

Best-known for the powerful Bosnian War allegory The Powder Keg (or Cabaret Balkan), Paskaljevic blends narrative strands that straddle realism and absurdism to regretfully consider the insane nationalism that swept across the director’s beloved, broken country. His most recent film, 2009’s Honeymoons, was shown at MOMA last summer; this week, his 2006 surreally comic The Optimists gets a MOMA slot.

Based loosely on the ironically cheerful refrain in Voltaire’s Candide, “all’s for the best in this best of all possible worlds,” The Optimists chronicles several characters desperate to, against all odds, hold on to what becomes an increasingly ridiculous optimism in a world mirroring recent Balkan (and European, and American, and Asian…) history.

Even the film’s obviously metaphorical vignette, a brutal rape that comes out of nowhere, has a genuinely queasy power, especially when the attacker turns the tables on his victim after she fights back. Saying that he’s the real victim of an overly excited sexual partner, the rapist could stand in for Serbian President Milosevic and his minions, who decried destructive NATO bombings even as they annihilated thousands of Bosnian Muslims.

The film’s final sequence presents disabled and ill bus passengers finding themselves abandoned in a desolate area after being taken for a literal ride by a con man promising them a magical, healing spring. As they convince themselves that all is well despite their predicament, splashing around in muddy water, the final shots display a cynicism and a sympathy that catches the Catch-22 of modern life: we could all use “I laugh to keep from crying” as a comically hopeful refrain, as those trapped in The Optimists surely do.

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