It’s somehow oddly reassuring, if depressing, to learn that the Balkans will be even more screwed up in the 21st century than they are today. At least, that’s the underlying theme running through Aleksandar Popovski and Darko Mitrevski’s truly surreal and disturbing “Good-bye 20th Century.”
Opening in Macedonia circa 2019, a darkly imposing priest leads a ragtag band up a desolate hillside. Think “Mad Max,” Balkans-style. There, the tattered worshippers blast a handsome young man known as Kuzman to smithereens with machine guns in a sort of ritual killing. Yet, to their tremendous dismay, Kuzman simply won’t die.
Several hours later, we learn why when a prophet disguised as a barber not so coincidentally appears before the brooding Kuzman. Again, think “The Road Warrior”‘s helicopter pilot. Seems Kuzman, who’d been suffering a bout of impotence, stumbled upon a cure when viewing the stained glass icon of a saint. Offended by Kuzman’s reaction to her, the sexy saint begins killing off his village’s children. Hence, the machine guns born by the village’s avenging residents. The prophet sends Kuzman on a quest to throw off his saint-given curse of immortality…and sends the viewer with him on a dark, quirky and utterly bizarre voyage through several time periods.
Kuzman reappears at various ages, as does the ageless prophet. In one short vignette, Kuzman is a young boy sitting on Santa’s (AKA the prophet’s) knee. In another, the prophet is shaving a dead man…while the man’s brother hosts a somber but freaky, nearly incomprehensible New Year’s Eve party/wake in the next room.
What did this all mean? Damned if I know. And I doubt this film’s impenetrability has anything to do with the language barrier and subtitling. This thing is just plain f***** up; the kind of drug trip one might expect to embark upon if they mixed heroin, acid, and ecstasy with a little peyote thrown in for good measure. The film is full of unforgettable images that are at once horrific and erotic. An incestuous subplot threads through the first portion of the film while the stylized drugs-and-blood festooned wake at the edge of time dominates the latter half.
It didn’t make a lick of sense to me, except in the very broadest of contexts. One would hope Popovski and Mitrevski are at least couching obvious and forceful Balkan political commentaries somewhere inside all this onscreen mayhem. Any such attempts, however, are sure to sail over the heads of uninformed American viewers, many of whom aren’t even in tune with the vagaries of our own politics, let alone those in the Balkans.
The truly weird part is that I couldn’t stop watching it anyway; never once had the slightest desire to hit the Fast Forward button. Like staring at the mangled carnage inside the shattered, ripped-open sides of a derailed train car, “Good-bye 20th Century” held me in its highly distasteful trance.
Kind of like watching news from the Balkans today.