Venice 2022 review: The Happiest Man in the World (Teona Strugar Mitevska)

“Despite its shortcomings, The Happiest Man in the World is an engaging and complex story about people finding solace in the ones they hated the most.”

Those that have not been hiding under a rock will be aware that there is a war going on on the Eastern edge of Europe. While a resolution in the conflict between Ukraine and Russia still seems to be far off, there will come a time when peace returns and people on opposing sides will mingle again. But how are people supposed to live next to each other when they were at each other’s throats shortly before? Will there ever be a time for understanding, for remorse, for forgiveness? There was another war on European soil only three decades ago that could possibly lead to answers to these questions, and it is these themes that Macedonian director Teona Strugar Mitevska explores in her sixth feature, The Happiest Man in the World.

That war (part of a cluster of conflicts in the Balkans during the 1990s) was the one between Bosnia and Serbia. During that war the Bosnian capital Sarajevo was under a nearly four-year siege from 1992 to 1996, its inhabitants suffering an unrelenting barrage of shelling and sniper fire. A few decades later the city forms the stage of The Happiest Man in the World, where Asja (Jelena Kordić Kuret) has signed up for a speed-dating event. At 45 she has no relationship and no children, and only her job to fill her existence. She has been pre-matched with Zoran (Adnan Omerović), who is off to a bad start when he shows up late for the event. They are made to answer questions to get to know each other a little better, the questions going from simple (“What is your favorite color?“) to more personal over the course of the exercise. Suddenly Zoran storms out: he has recognised the woman sitting across from him as the woman he shot during the war…

This kicks off a high-strung drama that sees Mitevska use essentially a single location as a pressure cooker to make the two lead characters, and once the truth comes out everybody else attending the event, work through their war trauma in an effort to move on. But for Asja there is a lot of trauma to get through; her life was essentially destroyed when Zoran shot her. She has scars on the outside to show for it, but the bigger ones are on her soul. Meeting the man responsible for them sends her into a maelstrom of emotions, and Kordić Kuret puts in an excellent performance as a woman struggling to find peace with the moment that devastated her life. Omerović matches her every step of the way as a man fighting his own demons while he is looking for empathy. In a lesser film it would be easy to favor Asja, but Mitevska, co-writing the screenplay with Elma Tataragic based on a true story, creates two complex characters that oscillate between attraction and repulsion.

Visually flat and with sober, perfunctory direction, The Happiest Man in the World rides the wave of its strong screenplay and a cast that is up to the task, to a tender conclusion that shows how our similarities are more important than having been on either side of the barrel of a gun. At some point we have to leave the past behind, no matter the trauma, and move on with life and with each other. Despite its shortcomings, The Happiest Man in the World is an engaging and complex story about people finding solace in the ones they hated the most.