"Cabaret Balkan", which was a major hit last year in the Former Yugoslavia and went on to win the Best Picture Award at a number of European film festivals, was originally slated for North American release in the spring of this year. However, when the NATO bombing campaign on Slobodan Milosevic's war machine began in late March, Paramount Classics decided to postpone the film's release until after hostilities subsided. Now that Kosovo has been freed from the barbarous 'ethnic cleansing' carried out by the Milosevic regime, Serbian director Goran Paskaljevic's allegorical exploration of Balkan turmoil can be finally seen.
Paskaljevic has always been a vociferous opponent of the Milosevic regime and its policies, and in "Cabaret Balkan", he uses a procession of related vignettes to explore the roots of the recent conflicts in the Former Yugoslavia, and how power and violence often go hand-in-hand. In fact, the original title of the film was "The Powder Keg", a term which has, on more than one occasion, been used to describe the city of Belgrade, the city from which the Milosevic regime has ignited four costly wars, under the guise of nationalism, in the past decade.
The film opens in the titular Cabaret Balkan, where a garish-looking master of ceremonies lambastes the audience with a monologue that bluntly encapsulates the absurdly comic and perversely-horrific situations that are about to unfold on one night in the decaying city of Belgrade. During the subsequent hour-and-a-half, Paskeljevic's shifting camera drops in and out on a dozen different lives, reveals the unspoken conflicts between them, and unflinchingly illustrates the tragic consequences that quickly ensue. In the director's vision of Belgrade, the emotional pitch of a situation can change dramatically on a turn of phrase, or a subtle shift in the balance of power. Several characters appear in more than one vignette, and their roles vary immensely from scene to scene-- in one situation they may be the assailant, and in another, the victim. On this night, old scores are settled, punishment is meted out, and lives are irrevocably changed.
A teenage boy crashes his car into another man's cherished VW Beetle, a predicament that rapidly escalates into a savage personal vendetta. A crippled police officer in a bar relates to a cab driver how badly he was beaten, only to be surprised by the cab driver's chilling response. A man returns to the city after a long absence to reclaim his ex-wife. Two long-time friends make a series of startling confessions to one another, a bout of verbal sparring that results in murder. A young man, fed up with the poor service on the city's public transportation, hijacks a bus and then proceeds to terrorize the other passengers. An angry mob chases after a young man who they mistakenly accuse of stealing gasoline.
In essence, Paskeljevic has made Belgrade a microcosm of the Balkans. In each vignette, the reasons behind the recent conflicts are explored metaphorically through the motivations of the characters. Each of the aggressors feel that they have suffered from injustices, both real and perceived, and they lash out in response to their pent-up anger. Whether it is over a car, a woman, a long-simmering feud, or a sense of powerlessness amidst a faceless system, the result is always the same. Unleashed is the desire to inflict brutal retribution, paving the way for the barbarous acts of murder, rape, and torture that have become commonplace in Croatia, Bosnia-Hercegovina, and Kosovo during the Nineties. The dramas that unfold during "Cabaret Balkan" take the distant images of ethnic cleansing on the news, and scale them down to a very personal level.
The film is marked by a number of memorable scenes, which is remarkable, considering that most of the characters appear on the screen for less than a total of ten minutes, providing little time for character development. Though many of the scenes seem to start off without any direction or sense of urgency, within the space of a few minutes, the script has set up the situation and infused tension between the principal players, creating a volatile situation that is sometimes difficult to watch. Some of the more powerful vignettes include the hostage-taking on the bus, the conversation between the police officer and the cab driver, a war-widow being harassed by a man on a train, and two quarreling lovers who become the 'entertainment' of the war profiteer and his eager understudy at gunpoint.
"Cabaret Balkan" is a bleak motion picture. There is no happy ending or sense of closure for any of the characters by the time the end credits roll. Unrelenting in its portrayal of the violence and hatred endemic to the Balkans, the human horrors revealed in this film could equally be applied to anywhere in the world, even in your own backyard. As the recent spate of shooting deaths in the United States illustrates, it is not very difficult, under the right circumstances, for a society to cross the tenuous line of civility into madness.