Goran Paskaljević: The Optimists (Optimisti, 2006)

reviewed by Miša Nedeljković © 2009

optimistsThe Optimists, which received its North American premiere at the 2006 Toronto Film Festival, is one of the most recent cinematic responses to the Serbian people’s questions: Who is responsible, and why is this happening to us? This film is a parable of the leader and his responsibilities. However, the director’s criticism does not “spare” the people either. In a way, his criticism of the leader leads the viewer to another question: How could the people have believed him? The film further explores other questions such as: What does a man or woman needs to feel happy, and can you live only on hope? These major issues are presented by one of Yugoslavia and Serbia’s best filmmakers, Goran Paskaljević in his latest full feature anthology (omnibus) film from 2006, The Optimists (Optimisti).

optimistsThe making of The Optimists was quite an endeavor; it was filmed in only two months and included an ensemble of some 50 actors. It was originally supposed to be a low-budget film, but it turned out to be a larger project involving a number of production houses from Serbia and abroad. The Optimists is a dark comedy inspired both by circumstances in post-Milošević Serbia and by Dr. Pangloss’s assertion in Voltaire’s Candide that, despite appearances to the contrary, “All’s for the best in this best of all possible worlds.” In this omnibus film, five separate stories share a slight thematic connection and a tendency toward the absurd: people who experience the very worst keep hoping for the very best. While each story is separate, they all are centered on a similar set of themes and “the (leader) swindler.” The well-known actor Lazar Ristovski, who appears as a charlatan motivational coach in each of the five stories, advertises optimism at all costs. Ignoring the harshness that surrounds “his people,” he advocates positive thinking in the midst of tragic circumstances. Everything is good and getting better, or so this “motivational coach” in The Optimists thinks and preaches. In all five stories, people are following him while struggling to overcome their harsh realities and to see the good in his leadership and their endeavors.

optimistsThis “charlatan leader” confuses and blinds “his people” with hopes of prevailing. A magnificent performance by Lazar Ristovski reinforces this critique of “the leader” and gives a harsh but straightforward answer to the Serbian people, who after all the years of the Milošević regime continue to ask the same question repeatedly: Who is responsible for our situation? Populist and nationalistic leaders (ab)used local media to voice their analysis of “our troubles,” and they offered answers that were easier to digest: “The culprit is someone or something outside of us and our borders … a foreign country, the other ethnic group, our neighbors … universal injustice …:” All of this is occasionally combined with some sort of grand conspiracy against the Serbian people along the lines that  “We (the Serbian people) could not possibly have been responsible for all of this mess!” Furthemore, because “reality is stranger than fiction,” it was easier for the charlatan–chauvinist motivational coach aka “the leader” to take a lead and bring more misery to the already miserable – this was a major premise of the most recent Paskaljević cinematic parable The Optimists. In all five stories, people have trouble distinguishing truth from illusion, and each segment reflects the motto of Voltaire’s Candide: “Optimism is insisting everything is good when everything is bad.”

In the first story, a traveling hypnotist arrives in a run-down village that has been leveled by floods and offers his help as a means of boosting the villagers’ confidence. He offers his services to the community, claiming to be a hypnotherapist who can cure them all. However, at first the residents are suspicious of his motives, believing him to be dishonest. He is accused of a theft and promptly arrested, beaten and interrogated. Finally, it is revealed that he is just a harmless mental patient who has escaped from the local psychiatric institution.

optimistsThe second story is a grotesque sequence in which a cardiologist is called to examine the proprietor of a pig slaughterhouse, who has had a heart attack. The man complains that his young son caused his heart attack by insisting on killing all animals he sees and thus having to be locked away. The boy had developed a dangerous enthusiasm for bloodshed. Unfortunately, the visiting doctor naively diagnoses this as unnecessary cruelty, not realizing the full ramifications of the boy’s attitude until he liberates him. The boy immediately goes back to killing animals. He climbs a water tower to get away but is tricked by his father (who fakes another heart attack) into coming down. At this point, we learn that father and son are the same: cold-blooded and crazy, they use the same self-pitying tricks to get what they want.

optimistsThe third story is about a young man addicted to gambling, who gambles away the money his uncle had saved for his father’s funeral. He resents his stingy uncle, who sells watermelons and fancies himself God’s gift to his in-laws. The young man gradually forges a friendship with an old woman (a nod to Pushkin’s Queen of Spades?) who has mastered the slot machines – her winning streak is almost as pathological as his unrelenting losses (she has not lost at the slot machines since she developed a terminal heart condition). He convinces her to use her luck for his good. At the very end, during his father’s funeral, in his speech the son reveals the awful truth: father, grandfather and great-grandfather have all lost their houses to gambling. They are far from being good people; it seems that gambling is in their blood. In the background, the old woman dies and the son scatters his father’s ashes. As in the conclusion of the Coen Brothers’ film The Big Lebowski (1998), the wind blows the ashes into the faces of the mourning family. They all remain motionless and ashamed.

The fourth story concerns itself with a girl who is sexually assaulted by her father’s boss. The father thinks he can kill him and get away with it but realizes that his boss owns the entire town. In the end, it is the man and his daughter who end up apologizing. 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.

optimistsIn the fifth story, a group of ailing elderly pilgrims looking for a spiritual and physical healing spa are driven to an isolated, secret location that is supposedly the site of the healing spring waters and left there by a con man. When he abandons them, singing “positive thinking,” servile followers continue to search for the healing spring that their leader promised would cure them. Finally, they get to the local sewage treatment plant and, convinced that this is the spa they were looking for, throw themselves into the manure.

These five stories are set in the contemporary reality of post-Milošević Serbia. They represent a mix of hope and lost illusions, truth and lies, fiction and real events. All the characters are confused individuals, blinded by their hopes of prevailing, who continue to get stuck in unfortunate situations. They are connected by a set of themes that seem to explain their delusional world. Each story features the veteran actor Lazar Ristovski in a different role—in the first, he is the fake motivational leader/hypnotist/runaway patient from the local psychiatric institution who preaches to the residents to think confidently that anything is possible. In this story, a theme of “phony illusionist” dominates. The con man illusionist succeeds in convincing people to follow his delusions. The second theme, “like father, like son,” describes all the reasons that led to the unfortunate incident. It is all just a game of faking: the father fakes so he can get to the son who fakes. Their lives revolve around faking. In the third story, the leader is dead but was supposedly a nice person and a father who took care of his family. His son seemed to be the black sheep of the family, a bad guy, who even gambled away his father’s funeral money. However, it is revealed that he is actually the same as his father, grandfather and great grand father before him were. They were all a family of charlatans, gamblers. The dominating theme in this story is “respect.” No one in the family should ever have any respect. The theme of the fourth story could be summed up by one word: “victims.” Who is the victim in this story of attempted rape and extortion? They all seem to be victims. Finally, the fifth story is dominated by the theme of the “fountain of youth.” The depth of the characters’ desperation is blinding. They all would rather live in the sewage then accept the cruelty of their miserable reality. The film is able to transmit tales of twisted, cynical episodes into a grand-scale parable of contemporary post-Milošević Serbia inhabited by characters immersed in disillusionment, providing little satisfaction individually or as a whole. Rather than parting on a note of resolution, the director ends each story when the situation reaches some sort of symmetry of hopelessness and defeat.

optimistsDeveloping cynicism to an art form, Goran Paskaljević presents an allegory of life in his homeland during the post-Milošević era. In The Optimists, the landscape of this Balkan world is dominated by injustices and self-deceptions. In some way, this film can be seen as a sequel to his celebrated 1998 film Cabaret Balkan (Bure baruta). While that typical post-noir film dealt with the absurdities of life in Milošević’s Serbia, The Optimists is concerned with the aftermath of Milošević’s tragic era for Serbia. This film is a vital antidote for this war-torn Balkan country, where, after years of conflict, the people are more vulnerable to exploitation and pernicious false hopes than any other group. However, The Optimists is partially removed from strong emotion: the angry futility it expresses might well have become a powerful statement in itself, but it does not cross the proscenium, and it does not emotionally involve us as much as did his more successful Balkan noir film Cabaret Balkan.

Miša Nedeljković, University of Oklahoma

Optimists (Optimisti), Serbia 2006
Color, 98 min.(,
Director: Goran Paskaljević
Script: Goran Paskaljević and Vladimir Paskaljević
Producers: Goran Paskaljević and Philip Zepter
Cinematography: Milan Spasić
Editor: Petar Putniković
Music: Aleksandar Simić
Production Designer: Tijana Marić
Costume Designer: Lana Pavlović
Sound (Dolby Digital): Velibor—Miša Hajduković, Branko Neškov
Cast: Lazar Ristovski, Bojana Novaković, Petar Bozović, Tihomir Arsić, Nebojsa Glogovac
Production: Zepter International, Nova Film in association with Wanda Vision, Swiss Effects, Zillion Film

Director's Filmography: Pan Hrstka (1969), A Few Words about Love (Nekolik slov o lásce, 1970), Children (Deca, 1973), Burden (Teret, 1974), Kapetan Janko (1974), From Victory to Victory  (Iz pobede u pobedu - 1975), Beach Guard in Winter (Čuvar plaže u zimskom periodu, 1976), The Dog who Loved Trains (Pas koji je voleo vozove, 1977), The Days on Earth are Flowing (Zemaljski dani teku, 1979), Šipad (1979), Special Treatment (Poseban tretman, 1980), Twilight Time (1982), The Elusive Summer of ‘68 (Varljivo leto ‘68, 1984), Guardian Angel (Andjeo cuvar, 1987), Vreme čuda (1989), Tango Argentino (1992), Someone else’s America (Tudja Amerika, 1995), Cabaret Balkan (Bure baruta, 1998), How Harry Became a Tree (2001), Midwinter Night’s Dream (San zimske noći, 2004), The Optimists (Optimisti, 2006).

Goran Paskaljević: The Optimists (Optimisti, 2006)

reviewed by Miša Nedeljković © 2009