Milorad Milinković: Obituary for Escobar (Čitulja za Eskobara, 2008)
reviewed by Marko Dumančić © 2009
Obituary for Escobar is Milorad Milinković’s third film and, like his previous two productions, it is a comedy of errors in which a gallery of colorful characters cross paths in unlikely and often bizarre situations. Like his first two films—Dead Cold (Mrtav 'ladan, 2002) and Chasing after Luck (Potera za Sreć[k]om, 2005)—Obituary for Escobar exemplifies this filmmaker’s innovative storytelling strategies and a keen sense for the comical and the absurd. Despite the sometimes fantastical plots, Milinković’s films are a candid exploration of both Serbian realities and universal questions. As a masterful storyteller, Milinković details and revels in the eclectic variety that defines contemporary Serbian society and tells about ordinary people in some very extraordinary circumstances.
The protagonist is supposedly the country’s most notorious mafioso who, ironically, goes by the name of Gandi (Gandhi). The story proper begins when Gandi serendipitously meets a gorgeous stranger by the name of Lela. While the two are busy falling in love, the police suddenly begin making the lives of Gandi’s thugs intolerable. The police harassment commences after Gandi executes a drug-trade rival by the name of “ the Serbian Escobar.” This would have likely been just another kill for Gandi had it not been for a simple, seemingly insignificant, turn of events. Earlier on the day of the murder, two unemployed thirty-something potheads (Deki and Baki) decide, while still high, to issue a newspaper obituary for the original, Colombian Escobar. Had the obituary not appeared, the police would have simply claimed responsibility for the death of the Serbian Eskobar as evidence of their effectiveness in combating the criminal underworld. However, incensed that the criminals had begun announcing their assassinations in the newspapers, the head of the police department starts hounding Gandi’s gang. At this point the love story and the crime/thriller story converge as both the law enforcement and Gandi’s goons begin to wonder who Lela is and where she came from. Lela soon becomes a threatening enigma since she does not seem to have a past. The only information available about the mysterious beauty is that she had recently returned from the Netherlands. Things come to a head when Gandi’s partners in crime find out that Lela was actually Borko—Gandi’s grade-school peer who had undergone a sex-change operation and spent seven years in the Netherlands before returning home. In the end, Gandi, true to his nickname, dies defending his sweetheart from his own partners who are hungry for revenge, proving that redemption and transformation are accessible even to those who are seemingly predestined for violence and destruction.
From the brief plot synopsis, it becomes clear that Obituary’s dynamic narrative delivers some explosive entertainment. But what makes Milinković’s film particularly captivating is his ability to toy with our expectations, prejudices, and snap judgments; the characters are rarely who we take them for. Milinković uses the stock characters emblematic of various (sub)genres only to undo their intended function for comic relief and shock effect. He thus presents a story in which neither villains nor victims are who they appear and a story in which tormentors easily turn into victims. This dynamic is particularly evident with the two protagonists: Gandi and Lela/Borko. Both characters had childhoods defined by psychologically and physically abusive fathers but deal with this hardship in ways that challenge the accepted views of gender and sexuality. To prove to his father that he is man enough, Gandi regularly harassed his peers in school and the feminine Borko became his favorite target. Gandi’s aggression thus comes from a place of weakness, trapped as he is by the fear of embodying anything but the traditional, misogynist masculinity his father personifies. The feminine Borko, on the other hand, quietly but decisively rebels against the oppressive environment that surrounds him. Constantly ridiculed and mistreated at home and in school, Borko breaks away from his family to become Lela. By transforming into a woman—normally a position of weakness in a patriarchal society—Borko shows that he acts from a position of strength. Thus the seemingly indomitable man who heads the criminal underworld is, ironically, a victim of his childhood traumas while the boy who used to be the casualty of Gandi’s displaced rage becomes his ultimate threat as a femme fatale.
Once Lela returns to her native town to even the score, she turns the victimizer into a victim. As the archetypal femme fatale, Lela ensnares Gandi both with her feminine charm and masculine assertiveness while at the same time plotting to avenge all the wrongs committed against her during childhood. Her plans go awry, however, as she falls in love with her former tormentor, demonstrating that victims need not always be defined by a desire for vengeance. Consequently, Lela does not only undergo a physical transformation but also ceases to be defined by her victimhood alone. Gandi, too, becomes transformed through love. Even after he finds out that the mysterious Lela is, in fact, Borko, Gandi does not behave in a predictable way. Instead of feeling that his affair with a transsexual had emasculated him, he embraces Lela as simply the person with whom he fell in love. He defends Lela against his goons who want to kill her for breaching the strict gender norms governing not only their subculture but also the patriarchal system in general. Thus the mobster who was unaware of who his namesake even was, becomes the incarnation of Gandhi’s ideals.
One can say that this film is, at its core, about the ability of humans to transform themselves in general and about the transformative power of love in particular. At the same time, Obituary also seeks to examine exactly how this transformation occurs. The movie actually begins with an angel asking two recent arrivals to what seems to be paradise: “Are our lives a series of coincidences or are they predetermined? And if our fates are predestined, is there any way we can change the outcome of our individual destinies?”Although Obituary does not provide a clear-cut answer about the extent to which we govern our own lives, Milinković makes it obvious that an individual’s destiny cannot be examined outside the larger human ecosystem; no life can be accurately examined in isolation. Gandi’s and Lela’s love story offers viewers the hope that one’s destiny is not utterly predictable and that transformation is central to our lives, even if it depends on the seemingly insignificant and irrelevant actions of others.
But although redemption is available to all, not all characters are worthy enough to receive it. In fact, in Obituary hell is not reserved exclusively for murderers and thieves, but is also intended for those who enable and normalize crime while simultaneously acting as stalwart defenders of public and moral order. Since we are all sinners, the only thing that can save us from eternal damnation is our ability to humbly repent. The moral question of who deserves (eternal) salvation also doubles as a social and political critique of contemporary Serbian society. Namely, after Gandi dies at the end of the film, he joins two seemingly upstanding citizens in paradise: a government minister and the minister’s faithful supporter. In an ironic twist, the angel asks the minister and the kindly-looking middle-age woman—rather than a hardened criminal—to proceed to hell, explaining that all hell-bound souls receive a tour of heaven as a form of punishment. As Gandi ventures to follow the minister (with whom he had done business), the angel stops him and explains that his repentance had changed the final outcome, earning him a place in heaven. Echoing the spirit of St. John Damascene’s prayer that appears at the end of the film, the angel notes that the willingness to ask forgiveness makes even the most brazen sinner a deserving recipient of divine mercy. Thus for Milinković a commitment to basic, if not universal, justice reigns supreme—both in heaven and on earth.
In addition to the engaging plot, complex characters, and metaphysical problems, Obituary for Escobar distinguishes itself by its interchange of genres, subgenres, and cinematic styles. While the film functions as a love story it is also structured as a comedy of errors. The film explores many weighty issues—such as domestic abuse, transexualism, and organized crime—but does so by unflinchingly using dark humor to confront the reality and aftereffects of these phenomena. And while the police investigation and chase after the enigmatic Lela incorporates elements of a detective thriller, it offers a serious commentary on police corruption and inefficacy and the depravity of the criminal world. This not only ads to the dynamism of the film overall, but also successfully evokes the feeling that human experiences are often simultaneously comic, absurd, dramatic, and suspenseful; daily life often functions on multiple emotional registers and Milinković adroitly captures this reality.
After the dark, grave, and often metaphorical/abstract Serbian cinema of the 1990s that dealt with wartime realities, Milinković’s comedies appear to be light fare by comparison. Although Obituary for Escobar could be defined as escapism, upon closer inspection it becomes evident that beyond the comedic surface, eternal issues and socio-political realities receive equally thoughtful consideration. Obituary treats both the concrete and spiritual malaise of contemporary society by employing comedy that runs the gamut from slapstick to dark humor. By so doing, Milinković shows that complex and weighty issues can be illuminated in a way to evoke both enlightenment and laughter (through tears).
Marko Dumančić, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill
Obituary for Escobar (Čitulja za Eskobara), Serbia, 2008
Color, 90 min
Director: Milorad Milinković
Script Writer: Milorad Milinković
Main Cast: Vojin Ćetković, Tamara Garbajs, Zijah Sokolović, Jelisaveta - Seka Sablić, Boris Komnenić
Cinematographer: Miodrag Trajković
Composer: Dušan Petrović
Producer: Željko Mitrović
Milorad Milinković: Obituary for Escobar (Čitulja za Eskobara, 2008)
reviewed by Marko Dumančić © 2009