San zimske noci
Review by Cullen Gallagher
Posted on 17 January 2008
Source 35mm print
Serbian director Goran Paskaljevic prefaced a screening of Midwinter Night’s Dream by saying that it is “perhaps my only film without humor.” A modest statement, if also accurate considering its dismal subject of post-war, post-Milosevic Serbia, but so much of Paskaljevic’s humor comes from his humanism, something Midwinter Night’s Dream is severely not lacking in. The story begins with Lazar returning to the home of his mother who has died during his absence only to find it occupied by Jasna and her autistic daughter, Jovana. Initially intending to kick the family out, he decides to let them stay on and he becomes a surrogate father figure while re-acclimating himself to his new environment. The three of them find a common bond in their alienation from society: Lazar is a former soldier who, after going AWOL because of his intense opposition to the war, accidentally kills his friend and is imprisoned for ten years, while Jasna and Jovana are both refugees from the war, and Jovana’s autism only further marginalizes her.
This state of readjustment strikes an autobiographical chord with Paskaljevic who, like Lazar, had been away for over a decade before returning to Serbia to make this film. Paskaljevic, because of his vocal opposition to Milosevic, was forced to flee the country in the early 1990s, eventually landing in Ireland where he would reside until after Milosevic’s fall. In this manner, both Lazar and Paskaljevic are exiles dealing with the aftermath of a collapse they were unable to bear witness to personally. As Lazar discovers, however, the country is still divided politically, and citizens are certainly demonstrative about their hatred for the recent influx of refugees. Paskaljevic configures the intense process of rediscovering ones home through long takes, often handheld, that linger on the environment: a bus winding through the woods, empty urban lots covered in alternating patches of garbage and snow, and a rare moment of beauty, a grove of trees alive with white blossoms, seemingly untouched by the recent decades of political turmoil and war.
Paskaljevic is a behaviorist, and from his earliest student films his work has been marked by a concern for marginal figures and their interactions with a more “normal” society: The Legend of Lapot, his thesis film, deals with an elderly man who, when he can no longer function as a worker in his community, is subjected to a ritualistic death by the entire village, and These Earthly Days Go Rolling By is a documentary-esque portrait of the minutiae of a nursing home and its residents who have formed their own community outside the eyes of the rest of the world which seems to have forgotten them. In Midwinter Night’s Dream, much attention is paid to the daily routines and habits of Jovana without the weight of pity or sentimentality. Paskaljevic has revealed that many of her scenes were handled with little, if any, direction at all. His camera is observational rather than judgmental, and scenes of Jovana calmly painting the same image of trees several times over are handled with the same anti-didacticism as her tendency to repeat certain words or small phrases that she hears from others. In opposition to the typical clichés – emotional outbursts and unintelligible stammering – Jovana’s portrayal emphasizes her ability to communicate through language and art, however cryptic and impenetrable to us it may be.
The film really only begins to falter with its ending, which is unforgivably abrupt and out-of-touch with the rest of the film’s reticence and heavy realism. The death of two main characters – and unexpected survival of the third – seems endemic of the classic “how to end a story when you don’t have an ending” scenario. What’s objectionable is not so much the bleak outlook, which is definitely keeping in tune with the rest of the film, but that these deaths bring the story towards some finality. All the loose ends aren’t necessarily tied up, but so much of the film seemed to comment upon the characters inability to enact any significant change in their lives. The characters all lacked agency in their own exile: the shifting political climate throughout the 1990s was the reason for their immigration and imprisonment, and eventually their union once the war ended. Their deaths seem to lack significance, while their lives defined notions of endurance and struggle. The story ends with ease whereas it begins with pain. The final scene isn’t unsettling so much because of its sobriety, but because it is so unfitting for a film so patient and attentive to detail that the smallest moments, seemingly without narrative importance, linger long after the movie is over.