Goran Paskaljevic returns to the omnibus form of his scorching "Powder Keg" in "The Optimists." But these five stories set in post-Milosevic Serbia are unrelated beyond their general air of disillusionment, providing little satisfaction individually or as a whole.

After the somewhat tepid “Midwinter Night’s Dream,” Goran Paskaljevic returns to the omnibus form of his scorching “Powder Keg” (aka “Cabaret Balkan”) in “The Optimists.” But these five stories set in post-Milosevic Serbia are unrelated beyond their general air of disillusionment, providing little satisfaction individually or as a whole. Helmer’s rep will mean ample fest touring and some international sales action, though neither the poignancy nor rage of his best work are apparent in this downer package whose impact evaporates too quickly.

Rather than parting on a note of irony or resolution, most of these tales simply deadend when situations have achieved their equilibrium of hopelessness and defeat. That may strike the director’s countrymen as an appropriate reflection of reality, but will leave others waiting for some more assertive statement.

In the first, the population of a flood-destroyed town is offered, gratis, the mood-lifting services of a hypnotist. No one believes in purely charitable motives anymore, however, so the hapless do-gooder is accused of an apparent theft and promptly arrested, beaten and interrogated.

Next, a young woman is taken to a rural property by her rich boss, where he rapes her. With all power (especially economic) on the assailant’s side, the girl’s father is forced to apologize as if the “incident” were somehow their fault.

A shiftless young man gambles away his own father’s funeral money in the third segment, then tries to ride the winning coattails of an elderly woman who hasn’t lost at the slot machines since she got a terminal diagnosis.

Most grotesque sequence finds a cardiologist called to the slaughterhouse-estate of a hog magnate who complains his son is giving him a heart attack. It is, in fact, the son that the doc is expected to treat — a porcine little nightmare kept locked in a room because he wants to slaughter everything he sees.

Finally, crippled and ill pilgrims are being bussed to secret, supposedly healing spring waters, but end up abandoned by their con-man guide.

Stories’ conceits have promise, looking at the rise in corruption, rich/poor gaps and so on that have replaced Communism and dictatorships in so many newly “free market” nations. Yet while tone ranges from the depressing to the blackly comedic, there’s a certain flatness of execution that reduces everything to the same watchable but dispiritingly minor plane.

Helmer and co-scenarist Vladimir Paskaljevic say they were inspired by “Candide,” yet Voltaire’s satirical savagery is missing here — not his cynicism, but the wit and fury that punched it across. “The Optimists” feels removed from strong emotion; the futility it expresses might well have become a powerful statement in itself, but pic is blunted by a sense of artistic inertia.

Vet thesp Lazar Ristovski appears in all segs, nimbly vanishing into five separate roles. Other performance and presentational contribs are solid if seldom inspired.

The Optimists

Serbia

Production

A Zepter Intl. and Nova Film production in association with Wanda Vision, Swiss Effects, Zillion Film and Cultural Ministry of the Serbian Republic. Produced by Goran Paskaljevic. Co-producer, Philip Zepter. Directed by Goran Paskaljevic. Screenplay, Vladimir Paskaljevic, Goran Paskaljevic.

Crew

Camera (color, HD-to-35mm), Milan Spasic; editor, Petar Putnikovic; music, Aleksandar Simic; production designer, Tijana Maric; costume designer, Lana Pavlovic; sound (Dolby Digital), Velibor Hajdukovic, Brankol Neskov. Reviewed at Toronto Film Festival (Masters), Sept. 10, 2006. Running time: 97 MIN.

With

Lazar Ristovski, Bojana Novakovic, Petar Bozovic, Nebojsa Glogovac, Nebojsa Milovanovic, Tihomir Arsic, Slavko Stimac.
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