'Cabaret Balkan': Life during wartime
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By Reviewer Paul Tatara
(CNN) -- The average living American has no experience of war on the home front. Combat veterans, of course, know the horrors of warfare. But in this century, we haven't, as a people, been forced to endure the psychological trauma of waking up every morning to a homeland that's bursting with the prospect of violent death.
Even the most desperate of our forgotten inner-city neighborhoods can't hold a candle to parts of the former and present-day Yugoslavia -- and the region's recent history of systematic conflicts attributed by many in the international community to the regime of Slobodan Milosevic. That government is seated in Belgrade, the capital of both the Yugoslav Federation and of Serbia.
New rules apply when your neighbor is prepared to kill you for sheer sport, especially when the troops that are supposed to protect you are made up of those same neighbors. The constant threat of unannounced brutality has a way of grinding down even the most forgiving spirit. The man or woman seated across from you eventually comes to be viewed more as a punching bag than a human being.
Goran Paskaljevic's harrowing film, titled "Cabaret Balkan" in its United States release, is set in Belgrade in the days preceding the 1995 Dayton peace accords for Bosnia-Herzegovina -- that's years, of course, before the more recent crisis in Kosovo (a Serbian province of Yugoslavia) and the NATO bombings of Belgrade in response.
But Paskaljevic's episodic, 24-hour study of a morally inconsolable capital city teems with the horrible assurance that betrayal is forever breathing down every Belgrade citizen's neck. Paskaljevic's unexpected displays of searing black comedy aren't much of a relief, either. "Cabaret Balkan" is extremely hard to take if you're not looking for a fight, which perfectly conveys the tenor of his characters' lives.
Yes, there are recurring appearances from Boris, a cabaret artist who sarcastically needles the audience for their complicity in the carnage, but there certainly isn't any revelry. The tone more closely resembles that of Lou Reed's sullen near-masterpiece of despair, "Berlin," in which two lovers taunt and berate each other to an inescapably violent end. Rape -- both physical and psychological -- suffuses every frame of "Cabaret Balkan." There are punches, clubbings and stabbings, but the most disturbing assaults are initially launched in whispers.
Cycles of violence
The structure allows Paskaljevic to introduce the characters, then mix them together in unexpected combinations at any point during the movie. There's an awful vortex at the heart of the stories, and virtually everyone gets sucked down. You pray for someone to escape, but even the survivors walk away forever damaged.
Individual occurrences resonate throughout the film, stacking multiple layers of tension on the next violent episode. The opening sequence, for instance, consists of a traffic accident that segues into a foot chase and ends with an elderly father's cherished heirlooms being destroyed by an enraged driver. This leads to a teen-age Bosnian Serb who argues with his bus-driver father, which leads to a pair of burly friends -- one of whom was involved in demolishing the old man's house -- as they systematically humiliate each other during a sweaty boxing workout. The film continues like this from beginning to end; dread is its modus operandi.
All the performances are powerful, the best delivered by Lazar Ristovski as the more imposing of the two gym buddies. The scene in which he and his friend finally have a confrontation, admitting that they've been taking remorseless advantage of each other over the years, wavers unsteadily between angry blows and forgiving laughter. The laughter is short-lived, however, as Ristovski eventually stabs his pal in the gut with a broken bottle.
This leads to a terrifying scene in which the drunken, fleeing murderer traps a young woman in a compartment on a passenger train. His aim is to rape her, but a literally explosive death awaits both of them.
I'll agree there's far too much violence in movies these days, but the overt barbarism in "Cabaret Balkan" honestly serves a purpose. The film rubs your face in the darkest aspects of the human animal, and you're not supposed to "enjoy" it in the rah-rah sense of the word. The gallows humor is more gallows than it is humorous, and ugliness prevails.
This isn't the way that life has to operate, but owning up to our shared tendency toward savagery is the first step in understanding wartime consciousness. Peace accords, for all their honorable intentions, are useless if only a handful of people read and sign them. And mass graves are often filled one body at a time.
"Cabaret Balkan" was initially translated "The Powder Keg" (from the original Serbo-Croatian, "Bure Baruta"), so you might want to look for other reviews under that name. The violence takes place right there in front of you, for the most part, but an intense sense of foreboding is more wearying than the bloodshed. The scenes in which defenseless women are preyed upon are the most difficult to handle. Rated R. 102 minutes. (The English contain a lot of profanity.)
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