Gangster of Love: Sarajevo Review

"Gangster of Love"
Bridget Jones meets Borat.

The Balkan dating documentary combines bittersweet real-life comedy with wry social observation.

SARAJEVO - Online dating has not yet reached the rural hinterlands of southeast Europe, according to this whimsical but warm-hearted documentary from the former Yugoslavian republic of Croatia. Screened at the Sarajevo film festival last week, the feature-length debut of Croatian-born director Nebojša Slijepčević combines a handsome sunshine palette, a gently mocking tone and a compelling cast of real-life eccentrics. A colorful, accessible window on contemporary Balkan culture, it will definitely interest further festival programmers and television buyers.

The title refers to Nediljko Babic, a Croatian Ted Turner lookalike with the nickname of “Gangster”. A smooth-talking charmer who never removes his sunglasses, Babic has been matchmaking men and women in the sparsely populated mountain region around his home town of Imotski for more than 20 years. Exuding a perpetual air of laidback confidence, he offers hilarious advice to clients looking for love: “moderate lies are allowed,” he assures them. But as the film unfolds, Babic’s suave self-image is comically undermined by a succession of disastrous dates and dissatisfied customers.

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With its wry comic undertow and jaunty soundtrack of Balkan folk music, the film’s surface tone is one of upbeat farce, but with a mild subtext of despairing social critique beneath. The emotional heart of the story is ever-hopeful Maya, a 33-year-old Bulgarian divorcee and single mother sent by Babic to meet endless potential suitors. But in this deeply conservative corner of Europe, it soon becomes clear that no man will countenance marrying a foreigner, especially one with a child from a previous relationship. In a rare slip of his usual diplomatic mask, an exasperated Babic tells one male client: “you don’t deserve to have a chicken, let alone a wife!”

Despite weaving together footage of half a dozen similar case studies, Slijepčević still cannot quite deliver the happy ending that might have made Gangster of Love into a real-life rom-com. But that is chiefly down to bad luck rather than bad film-making. An effortlessly enjoyable human story, regardless of its open-ended conclusions, this agreeably offbeat documentary ends up paying homage more to the universal habit of romantic optimism than to the power of love itself.

Production company: Restart

Producer: Vanja Jambrović

Starring: Nediljko Babic

Director: Nebojša Slijepčević

Writers: Nebojša Slijepčević, Vanja Jambrović

Cinematographer: Nebojša Slijepčević

Editors: Nebojša Slijepčević, Iva Kraljević

Sales company: Rise and Shine, Berlin

Unrated, 80 minutes