On the surface of it, Tango Argentino seems like a fairly typical Yugoslav comedy of the kind that was ten-a-penny in the 1980s: warm, gently satirical but not entirely focused on anything grander and often with a meandering plot. Nikola (Nikola Zarković) is a young boy on school holidays, visibly worried at the strained financial situation in his family, as well as the tension between mum and dad (Ina Gogálová and Miki Manojlović). With mum tempted by the prospects of (albeit dodgy) employment in newly capitalist Bulgaria, Nikola takes it upon himself to take on her former job as a maid for old-age pensioners. To make matters more difficult, his father has been tempted by a promotion at the music conservatoire where he works, the caveat being that his employers want his wife to look after their elderly parents. To compensate for the volume of work he has to do, Nikola ingeniously gathers his elderly charges together, making them crash over at each other’s dusty apartments whilst engaging in general partying and entertainment with each other.
So far, this is rather standard. Any number of Yugoslavia’s flourishing filmmakers in the 1980s could have made Tango Argentino. But the date of the film’s release is not the 1980s. It is January 1992. By 1992, the old Yugoslavia had ceased to be. Croatia, Macedonia and Slovenia had already declared independence, and Bosnia was about to hold its own referendum on the subject in March. Soon, Yugoslavia would be solely made up of Serbia (including the autonomous regions of Kosovo and Vojvodina) and Montenegro, a rump, disintegrating state and a shadow of its former self.
The pensioners which little Nikola looks after are made up of Partisan war veterans. Two in particular, the tango singer Popović (Mija Aleksić) and Kerečki (Milivoje Tomić) were even in the same unit in WWII. They are dyed-in-the-wool communists, fervently believing in the old ideals of brotherhood and unity. Two generations beneath them is our protagonist Nikola. Although he appears to model himself as a businessman—he wants to own a popcorn machine and sees it as key to the family’s financial independence—he is in many ways an ideal Communist youth pioneer; obedient, hard-working and full of empathy and care for his fellow human beings. Nikola is the sort of child that, fifteen years earlier, might have been chosen to relay the baton to Tito on Youth Day. He’s the sort of child that Emir Kusturica made a film about with his masterpiece When Father Was Away on Business (1985), and he is in some ways almost identical to the child that becomes disillusioned with Tito in Goran Marković’s equally brilliant Tito and Me (1992). Here, he is trapped by the world of the adults, and able to reach out the generation above them only fleetingly. Pretty soon, Nikola’s time with the old folk is up, as they inevitably either shuffle off this mortal coil or their flustered and greedy adult children note that their parents are attempting to regain some independence on their own behalf, swooping in to cut out such shenanigans.
In Tango Argentino, the middle generation, the ones wielding the power, and supposedly the ones at the right age to provide a mixture of youthful energy and life-learned experience, prove to be the most ignorant and hard to shift of the three, drawing themselves towards petty, greedy arguments. The allegory is crystal clear, considering what Yugoslavia was undergoing at the time.
Goran Paskaljević, an alumni of the Prague School (along with both Kusturica and Marković and a number of other highly regarded Yugoslav directors), provides here a damning indictment of a generation in Yugoslavia that stood at its most crucial moment after WWII: after Tito and after the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe, it was precisely this middle generation depicted in Tango Argentino that had the responsibility of shifting coherently from one world paradigm to another. And it was a failure, with such failures damning future generations.
And yet, despite this dark undertow to the film, it remains an incredibly warm and heart-felt love-letter to a Yugoslavia that was at this point dying fast. The film is bathed in warm yellowish light, as if the last embers of the Yugoslav summer were being sprinkled across Paskaljević’s autumnal frame. The mood was already ugly in 1992, but it would turn far far uglier soon. By 1998 Paskaljević had written and released Cabaret Balkan, a searing indictment of the mess that Milošević had turned Yugoslavia into. That film is one of the most nihilistic and depressing films to have ever come from the former Yugoslavia, and there are many contenders for that prize. That it came only six years after Tango Argentino beggars belief, as if the trauma of the 90s was so deep that even the bittersweet remembrance of better times was too painful to bring oneself back to.
The film’s final scenes encapsulate this pained beauty like few others. Escaping from the geriatric hospital where he has been placed by his greedy son, Popović tracks down Nikola. With the last remains of his savings, the old man suggests the two go on a trip to the Adriatic Coast. They arrive in Montenegro and jump into the golden blue ocean, liberated and free. The Adriatic Coast, which is mostly Croatian today (Slovenia, Bosnia, and Montenegro all have small stretches of it) was the place where my parent’s generation would go on holiday. In the time of socialist Yugoslavia, worker’s wages were high enough that most families could afford to go on holiday to the Adriatic, even on a casual weekend. That whole generation remembers the seaside trip to the coast as a vital part of childhood and adolescence. Today, people still go of course. But now they have borders and passports, paperwork and queues, where once there was only the winding mountainous, but ever so open road.