There have been plenty of films from Yugoslavia depicting Romani life and dealing with Romani issues. Mostly, these depictions are fraught with risk; there are very few Romani people actively working as directors or writers in the film industry, so most depictions tend to be from non-Romani people. As such, many films about the Roma from non-Roma directors have been accused of exoticisation, of a form of Orientalism even. Emir Kusturica’s Black Cat, White Cat, a film I admittedly really like, is a prime example of this: the entirety of the film is little more than Roma people playing loud music, getting drunk, and fighting, with all bad blood forgotten the next morning. It’s an absurdist, romanticised notion of Gypsy life, and one that largely only exists in the minds of non-Roma people. In films such as Kusturica’s, one see a kind of fantasy about Roma life, and subsequently a fantasy Kusturica holds about his own life, as if he urging us all to be like those wonderful riverside Gypsies, to throw away all the shackles and conformities of modern life: the TV, the 9-to-5 job, the suburban security. Such is often the depiction of the Roma in Yugoslav cinema.
Goran Paskaljević’s Guardian Angel however, takes a much more intelligent and well-thought out route, grounded in neorealism. The Roma world here still contains plenty of music, drinking, and fighting, but the mood is far starker. We follow a journalist, Dragan (Ljubiša Samardžić), writing a story about Roma children being smuggled into Italy to work as beggars, pickpockets or street musicians for the mafia, wherein he becomes fascinated with the case of one particular boy, Sajin (Jakup Amžić). Despite the protestations of Mila (Neda Arnerić), a social worker responsible for returning the boys arrested by Italian authorities back to their homes in Yugoslavia, he decides to track Sajin down in Venice, attempting to free him from the clutches of his exploitative, abusive boss.
An early scene in the film shows Dragan familiarising himself with ‘Gypsy Town’, a shanty settlement on the edge of Belgrade. Paskaljević takes his time with the scene, allowing Dragan to wander around. He finds little else but desperation and sheer poverty, a place left behind by the development of socialism in Yugoslavia. Yes, there is music and drinking, but these are symptoms of poverty in a place where there isn’t much else to do, rather than expressions of some kind of “pure” Gypsy soul. The mud and ugliness recall far more Aleksandar Petrović’s classic I Even Met Happy Gypsies (1967) than the rosy, colourful vision proposed by Kusturica. Dragan drifts through the settlement, mostly ignored by those around him except for those he stops to ask for information, an outsider rolling through, likely to forget the names and faces of those he speaks to within moments.
Guardian Angel doesn’t linger on these depictions of poverty in an attempt to build cheap exoticised sympathy. The poverty is presented matter-of-factly, with the film’s focus squarely on Dragan’s search for Sajin. When we arrive in Venice we also begin to learn more about Dragan and about his flaws and hidden prejudices. Is he doing searching out Sajin out of the goodness of his own heart, or is he simply trying to save somebody to make himself feel better? In one particularly dark scene, he finds a blind Roma child begging on the streets. Believing the child to be lying, Dragan shows him a photo of Sajin, and, frustrated even takes off his dark sunglasses, only to find the boy is as honest as can be. In one reaction shot, Paskaljević nails down the hypocrisy and smugness of Dragan: for all his honest intentions, he still struggles to empathise with Roma people. He is little more than a white saviour, come to the Congo to bring civilisation to the savages, or so he thinks.
Throughout, Paskaljević reiterates this point about Dragan, and in doing so comes to a simple, if rather powerful conclusion about the state of the Romani people in Yugoslavia (and indeed across Europe): to actually improve living standards in these communities, one actually needs collective action and a will to listen to the problems being iterated from these communities. Individual sympathy is fine, but it is not enough, and sympathy without an ear is pointedly dangerous. Dragan is a kind man: he finds Sajin, he feeds him, he shelters him, and he tries to bring him back to his family. But he does not listen when Sajin warns him about the people he’s dealing with. He does not listen to warnings from other Roma, and he does not even listen to the warnings from Mila, whose lifetime of work alongside these communities has equipped her with both a world-weary emotional distance and a resolve to carry on helping.
There are minor missteps to the film. Paskaljević has long been one of Yugoslavia’s and Serbia’s most socially-conscious directors, but his films occasionally veer into simple polemics rather than genuinely fascinating dialectical discussion, and I think Guardian Angel leans ever so slightly towards the former, with the points being made in rather clear fashion. In addition, Ljubiša Samardžić is a fine actor, but his performance here is a little one-note; he rarely develops beyond the half-smirk with which he so convinces himself that he’s going to save Sajin, almost floating past the film as if he’s letting it pass him by. Maybe that’s the point: this is a film about a man who believes that because he is cultured and educated, he is therefore near-indestructible, able to swoop into a village and rescue young, vulnerable children. Of course, that is the irony of the film’s title. A Guardian Angel he is not.