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What was it like living in Belgrade under Slobodan Milosevic when the former Yugoslavia was rattling apart like a rickety soap-box racer zooming down Suicide Hill? A hotbed of political unrest and violence that held international attention since the 90's, the former Yugoslav Republic seemed a place overcome by chaos and violence. As a typical United Stater, I was mainly insulated from the situation except for a general awareness of the "ethnic cleansing" (what a truly evil euphemism!) in Kosovo and Bosnia. Were it not for the Internet, I probably wouldn't even know that Montenegro is likely to secede in spite of President Kostunica recent ascent to power.
For an American like me, who doesn't regularly partake in newspapers or news TV, and who isn't employed as an international correspondent for NPR, Cabaret Balkan was an especially eye-opening portrayal of a sick culture. Southern Culture may be on the Skids, but Yugoslavian culture has smacked hard into the brick wall.
My first reaction to this film is: are Yugoslavians always so crazily and constantly impassioned? The mellowness factor in this movie hovers right around flat zero. I wonder if this is an accurate portrayal or if it's a Hollywoodism emulated by the filmmakers. If you know, do tell me!
Cabaret Balkan interweaves a few urban story lines, Raymond Chandler-style into a portrait of a country. Characters cross paths long enough to affect one another, then travel their own tragic arcs. Are there any happy endings? It didn't look like it to me. This culture is falling apart: everyone is in despair, denial, or utter desperation.
A performance poet in heavy makeup frames the film with half-drunk tirades on how messed up the Balkan states are. In a brief but unnerving prologue, he promises to ahem - mess with our minds. We cut to a taxi driver complaining about the country. He is cut off by a younger taxi driver, dangerously weaving across the road. This younger driver begins to sexually harass a young woman out his window and accidentally smashes into a VW bug at an intersection.
The bug's owner is so angry, that he begins to beat the hell out of the taxi. A cop arrives. The young cabbie confesses that the car is not registered. This makes Mr. VW so pissed, he nearly has a heart attack, and in the confusion, Young Cabbie sneaks away. Later, Mr. VW and his swarthy friend find out where the cabbie lives. They speak to his father and in a rage, Mr. VW trashes the house even as Swarthy Friend tells him to "calm down."
Still later, Swarthy Friend spars in the boxing ring with his bosom buddy from way back. During the practice, Bosom Buddy confesses that 20 years ago he slept with "Elena," who we assume to have been Swarthy's girl. Swarthy says he's not angry, but as they continue to spar, Swarthy confesses a few things himself: that he was the one who got Buddy busted for some scam, that he poisoned Buddy's dog, that he slept with Svetlana, Buddy's wife, and finally that Buddy's son doesn't look like Buddy for a very good reason.
Buddy is discombobulated by all of this; but when Swarthy says that he had known about Elena all this time and that he had been waiting for Buddy's confession-and taking revenge for 20 years-that's when Buddy smashes his liquor bottle and uses it to gut Swarthy like a large, hairy fish.
Intervening scenes occur. We return to Buddy aimlessly, drunkenly riding a train. He spies an attractive young woman riding with Young Cabbie. He tells the young coward to get lost, then proceeds toward a classic drunken rape scene very disturbing. But the woman has a grenade, a memento from her young lover (husband? fiance?), who is now dead. Her despair matches Buddy's. Buddy pulls the pin, and embraces the girl, sobbing. Ka-blooey!
Maybe this is all a political allegory, but as a comparatively calm viewer from California, I couldn't help wondering if the ubiquitous intensity of every story line is indicative of that country's collective descent into confusion or director Goran Paskaljevic's attempt to create an edge-of-your-seat sociopolitical thriller.
Another storyline: a young man on a bus gets tired of waiting for the bus-driver (a displaced Serbian professor). The young man hijacks the bus, then proceeds to threaten and revile the passengers in an effort to elicit some kind of honest, human response to his violence, fatalism and horniness. Again, it's pretty disturbing, but this time not without a dark allure: the scene calls to mind the impetuousness and immediacy of youth in its most feral state. The bus driver finally catches up to his purloined bus and clobbers the young man with a crescent wrench.
A young woman from the bus, who was sexually harassed, goes on to another equally tense confrontation between her boyfriend, a twisted gangster, and the gangster's young stooge. She is again sexually harassed until the boyfriend kills the gangster.
The gangster's young stooge, fleeing the scene is mistaken for a gasoline thief and hunted by an angry mob. The cab driver from the first scene watches the mob stone the young stooge and tosses a cigarette match out his window, igniting a parking-lot full of Yugos resting in spilled gasoline.
I forgot to tell you about that original cab driver's intense confrontation with an old, crippled police officer, but never mind. If you like Short Cuts, Good Fellas, Flawless, and Brazil, then you may like this combination of politics, passion, violence, chaos, intensity and insanity. It certainly is riveting in spite of its nihilism. I give it 9-1/2 stars for that reason and because it was made by people who obviously cared about the project.
©1999 by Randy Shandis Enterprises. All rights happily reserved.