“Tito and Me,” Goran Markovic’s sweet-tempered 1992 satire, came billed as the last film out of Yugoslavia. Still resident in Belgrade, the director now serves up “The Tragic Burlesque,” the title of which accurately registers its tone while inadvertently signaling its weaknesses as well. Masking genuine tragedy with farcical comedy that’s seldom funny, pic has, in effect, a contradictory agenda that ends in self-cancellation. Result should have little future beyond fests and Eurotube spots.
Black comedy has such a long and worthy tradition in Eastern Europe, whose modern patron saint must be Franz Kafka, that it’s worth wondering why it seems oddly off-kilter when applied to present-day Serbia. Perhaps that’s because, as Emir Kusturica’s “Underground” also suggested, laughing at horrors so immediate and highly charged can seem at once self-serving and evasive, a way of appearing to say something while avoiding any clear-cut (and politically risky) moral stance.
Surprisingly or not, the abomination at Serbia’s doorstep goes unmentioned in “The Tragic Burlesque.” This contemporary Belgrade might be lightyears away from war, apart from the deprivations that give Markovic his premise.
Called simply the Doctor, the harried head of a mental hospital decides to shut down the facility due a total lack of supplies. Hoping to deliver his patients back to their homes, he gathers a motley crew of inmates and sets off on a disorderly odyssey across the city, eventually discovering that most of his charges have no relatives who’ll take them.
Two of the procession, an elderly man and woman, have fallen in love at the hospital, and the group pauses to allow them a carnivalesque wedding. The jovial groom, it turns out, does have a home he can aim for. Pic frequently cross-cuts to his two grown sons and their wives, who are engaged in a night of antic bickering, not yet realizing that they’ll be hosting a gathering of peripatetic loonies by tale’s final act.
Beyond depicting the mentally ill in a way that’s both tiresomely cliched and insulting, pic does not, apart from scattered moments of drollery, get much comic mileage out of their cartoonish shenanigans. Other characters are no more engaging, but what the tale most drastically lacks is a point of view, a sense that it’s meant to be more than bad sitcom.
Markovic’s direction, however, is visually adept, and tech credits are fine.