Cabaret Balkan

Shelved for months after NATO began its bombing campaign in the former Yugoslavia, Goran Paskaljevic's bleak, incendiary Cabaret Balkan scoffs at the idea that anything like peace could be visited upon the region. Throughout the film's one bloody evening in Belgrade, radio and television reports of the resolution in Dayton ring through the air as a sad counterpoint to the ceaseless brutality that wracks the city. Cabaret Balkan, which was originally (and more accurately) titled The Powder Keg, doesn't have a conventional story arc, instead moving from one violent incident to the next like La Ronde or L'Argent, with blows exchanged rather than money. To Paskaljevic, violence is the country's connective tissue and, perhaps appropriately, he directs as if wielding a blunt instrument, pounding the same point home over and over again. What keeps the film from becoming a repetitive bore is that the individual scenes usually have enough tension and biting black humor to sustain themselves. The chain of events is set into motion after a reckless and unlicensed driver smashes into a brand-new VW, prompting its furious owner to retaliate. This incident leads to several long, increasingly violent setpieces: Two best friends and sparring partners discover that each has constantly betrayed the other, the survivor of their fight goes on to menace and nearly rape a grieving student on a train, a bus is hijacked and terrorized by a gum-chomping young sadist, and so forth. Cabaret Balkan doesn't offer much hope, but it's mostly redeemed by Paskaljevic's viscerally intense staging, which packs some of the lunatic charge of fellow countryman Emir Kusturica (Underground). The film shattered box-office records in Sarajevo and Belgrade, where the essential truths behind its hyper-reality obviously struck a powerful chord.

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