Goran Paskaljevic: Serbia's lost master

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BFI Southbank is offering the rare chance to discover the back catalogue of one of Serbia's unheralded talents.

Scholars of Balkan cinema excepted, could you honestly name a movie by veteran Serbian director Goran Paskaljevic if asked to? A July season at BFI Southbank seeks to fill this inevitable knowledge vacuum by presenting 15 films from the little-seen back catalogue of this unfortunately neglected talent who has amassed a reliably stirring and eclectic body of work since he started making films in the early seventies.

Employing a terse, understated directorial style, Paskaljevic’s liberally-plotted films tend to be fuelled by their probing humanist integrity and they frequently explore how marginalised people (the elderly, the young, gypsies, immigrants, the mentally disabled, even a mute, Jesus-like miracle worker) are accepted (or aren’t, in most cases) by ‘normal’ society. The rough-hewn realism of Ken Loach seems to be the nearest point of comparison, but Paskaljevic’s interest in political and historical machinations remains more abstract than that of Nuneaton’s favourite son.

Having worked for roughly half a decade for a Belgrade television network, he made his feature debut in 1974 with ‘Beach Guard in Wintertime’, an ambling, bittersweet tale of how a youthful love affair is finally scuppered by the negative influence of parental expectation and a weak job market. Rejecting a strong narrative line in favour of accruing a succession of integral ‘moments’ to flesh out story and character, it’s an unconventional method that Paskaljevic constantly returns to and hones throughout his career, and it often imbues his films with a satisfying, slow-burning charm.

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The Dog Who Loved Trains

‘The Dog Who Loved Trains’ (1977) transplants this free flowing style to a very different situation, detailing the fractious relationship between a female escaped convict, a travelling Serbian rodeo daredevil and a motorcycling nebbish who’s searching for his lost mutt. The tone of the movie is initially comic, as the convict is nonplussed by the stuntman’s affected machismo (including his ability to wrestle with a donkey), but as the realisation that pressing self-interests will soon damage the party dynamic, events begin to turn much darker.

Paskaljevic’s third film – ‘These Earthly Days Keep Rolling By’ (1979) – is also his greatest, a profoundly empathetic, unpretentious and droll account of a how a swarthy, Hemingway-like sailor upends the droning routines of a nursing home when he checks himself in. Though his subtle interactions with the other residents – including his cantankerous roommate who obviously harbours resentment towards his family for putting him out to seed – the sailor gently whisks up an atmosphere of hope and happiness and allows the movie to deliver it’s beautifully simple message: that life should be savoured until the bitter end.

On to the eighties, and Paskaljevic stuck to his obvious strengths with ‘Special Treatment’ (1980), but also made a shift into more pronounced allegorical climes. The movie offers a harsh dismantling of totalitarianism as it follows the patients at a clinic for alcoholics as they forcibly embark on a small theatrical tour as a form of therapy. 1987 brought ‘Guardian Angel’, a provocative study of Roma gypsies and their habitual practice of selling children as slaves. It’s made with Paskaljevic’s usual attention to fine detail, but the representation of the gypsy community as an enclave of morally bankrupt savages makes it feel more like propaganda than a piece of objective filmmaking.1989’s ‘The Time of Miracles’ sees the director working on a much larger canvas than usual, but sadly this grand period satire set in a small Serb village at the beginning of Tito’s premiereship about the realities of communism and the need for spiritual faith doesn’t allow the director to get particularly close to any of his subjects or ideas.

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Tango Argentino

‘Tango Argentino’ (1992) is a lovely, tranquil comedy about a small boy helping out his argumentative parents by caring for – and in turn empowering – a number of elderly local residents. Despite a few delightful moments, ‘Someone Else’s America’ (1995) feels like his only outright misfire, a lumbering, melodramatic look at Brooklyn’s immigrant underclass that features Tom Conti doing a Spanish accent not entirely dissimilar from Manuel out of 'Fawlty Towers'.

He hit rude form again in 1997 with ‘Cabaret Balkan’, an riotous, criss-crossing tale that charts a single night of passion and pain in the Serbian capital and works well as the mischievous Eastern European cousin to Tarantino’s ‘Pulp Fiction’. ‘A Midwinter Night's Dream’ (2004) marks a return to the muted, elegiac tales of his early career, as Lazar Ritovski – Serbia’s answer to Gene Hackman – discovers a Bosnian refugee and her autistic daughter squatting in his home when he returns from a ten-year stretch behind bars. Instead of turfing them out, he becomes obsessed with ‘curing’ the autistic girl and develops a poignant bond with her in the process. 2006’s impressive (and severely pessimistic) compendium of shorts on the theme of unchecked optimism – ‘The Optimists’ – sees Paskaljevic taking a leaf out of Voltaire’s ‘Candide’ and asking, is this really the best of all possible worlds?

It’s probably wrong to head to the films in this season expecting to be bowled over by the artistry and understanding of an unheralded genius: Paskaljevic is not that kind of director and his work doesn’t vie for attention in the same way that, say, countryman Emir Kusturicas’s does. Instead, go along ready to work for the small but significant epiphanies that are nestled within all of these carefully fashioned films and prepare – more often than not – to be smitten in the process.  

Author: David Jenkins



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