A comedy about a bunch of alcoholics sounds like a contradiction in terms, to say the least. But leave it to the wry Yugoslavian sensibility to pull it off.
Goran Paskaljevic's "Special Treatment" (at the Fox International) is indeed special. It's a bleakly funny film that combines subtlety and warmth with a rich sense of absurdity in the finest tradition of rueful Eastern European humor.
The "special treatment" that the pompous, silver-haired, bearded director (Ljuba Tadic) of an alcoholic clinic has in mind for six of his patients is an outing to a brewery: the final step in their rehabilitation prior to release. Not only will the patients' will power be put to the test, but they also will stage a kind of psychodrama, acting out the most abysmal moments of their misery and decline for the benefit of the brewery workers--who've helped themselves to a generous sampling of the product.
Paskaljevic and his colleagues are working within two of the most ancient and sturdy forms of the narrative, the odyssey and the allegory, and this gives the film a wide latitude. The journey to the brewery allows for silly exercise periods--and other shenanigans, supervised and otherwise--in an unspoiled countryside (rendered in luminous pastels by cinematographer Aleksander Petkovic).
We also get to know the six patients: Most important are Jelena (Dusica Zegarac), a worn, elegant woman desperate to stay sober to regain custody of her children; Marko (Petar Kralj), a tall, beefy actor cursed with a stutter (until he's drunk), and Stevo (Danilo Stojkovic), a burly chauffeur whose determination to beat the bottle is equaled only by his all-consuming, fiery rage.
Then there are the other three who seem indifferent to their fates: Ceda (Milan Srdoc), an elderly lottery ticket-seller, who swipes a bottle of hard liquor at the very first rest stop; Mila (Radmila Zivkovic), a would-be singer, and Rada (Bora Todorovic), a seedy classical musician.
Also in tow is the doctor's small son (Predrag Bijelic), very alert and dressed in a tan three-piece suit identical to his father's. At the brewery the doctor is pursued by the establishment's industrious, man-hungry PR woman (Milena Dravic).
"Special Treatment" was co-produced in 1980 by local restaurateur Dan Tana. It really hasn't anything seriously to do with the treatment of alcoholism--but it has everything to do with tyranny and freedom. Whether or not the doctor's program has any merit--and it certainly doesn't seem to have any--is beside the point. What is important is that he's a dictator given to constant and ridiculous assaults on human dignity, his absurd grandiosity underlined by great bursts of Wagner and Dvorak on the sound track.
Freedom, "Special Treatment" (Times-rated Mature for adult themes), seems to be saying, is precious, even if it's to be found only in the illusions at the bottom of an empty bottle.