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CABARET BALKAN (BURE BARATA)(director/writer: Goran Paskaljevic; screenwriters: Dejan Dukovski/Filip David/Zoran Andric/based on the play “The Powder Keg” by Dejan Dukovski; cinematographer: Milan Spasic; editor: Petar Putnikovic; cast: Nebojsa Glogovac (Taxi Driver), Miki Manojlovic (Michael), Marko Urosevic (Alex), Bogdan Diklic (Jovan), Dragan Nikolic (Jovan’s boxer friend), Danilo ‘Bata’ Stojkovic (Viktor), Aleksandar Bercek (Dimitri, crippled ex-cop), Voja Brajovic (Topi), Mirjana Jokovic (Ana), Nikola Ristanovski (Boris), Ana Sofrenovic (Beautiful Woman On Train), Mira Banjac (Bosnian Serb mother), Ivan Bekjarev (Angry Youth on Bus), Toni Mihajovoksi (George), Dragan Jovanovic (Kosta); Runtime: 102; Paramount Classics; 1998-Yugoslavia/France)
“It’s a message film, saying these kind of horrors happened many times in history before and they will continue to happen if we forget history.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

A depiction of hell caused by war. It’s a sweeping political picture set in 1995 in the Balkans. All the action takes place on a 12 degree winter night in Belgrade, showing a breakdown in ‘Law and Order.’ The police are numerous, but they turn a blind eye to justice and act only as contributors to the problems of the former country known as Yugoslavia. “Cabaret Balkan” is a loosely done series of repulsive vignettes, all reflecting the bleakness of the war-torn country and the director Goran Paskaljevic’s (Someone Else’s America) adverse reaction to what evil President Slobodan Milosevic has wrought on Serbia. It was brutal to watch and even more intense and more in your face than some of the recent films on Serbia, it was one that had no subtlety or artistic edge. The gruesome scenes ran together in a heavy-handed manner. No voice of reason emerged, or no one with whom to sympathize could be found. The deep tragedy is in the loss of humanity, and the film forces that inhumanity onto the viewer. There isn’t much to take away from this film that could help you understand the situation better except to truly see the hopelessness of the situation, and one could have gotten that from reading the newspapers. It’s the kind of film that might have a greater impact in the homeland (which it did) than throughout the world.

The film opens at the nightclub called Cabaret Balkan and a surly M.C., Boris (Nikola Ristanovski), dressed with black eye shadow, appearing to be androgynous, angrily tells us he is going to fuck with our minds. He is our tour guide and by the film’s end he will drunkenly fall on his face (I guess a metaphor for Serbia).

A series of sketches begin, all sadistically violent, as a young unlicensed taxi driver named Alex (Marko) while trying to to pick up a young woman loses sight of the traffic and bangs into a car causing a fender bender. The police can’t resolve things and road rage takes over. Jovan (Bogdan), the one whose car was smashed, goes to Alex’s apartment with his boxer friend (Dragan) and becomes irrational, smashing up the apartment, causing Alex to run away, fearing for his life. This is something that could happen in the States, but not likely to this extreme. More than likely, the police would have resolved it if called on to help.

In another sketch a Bosnian professor now a bus driver, urges his son to also become a bus driver — saying he is lucky to have a job. But the son says he wants something better and goes to work for Topi (Vojislav Brajovic), a former revolutionary who is now a vicious cocaine dealer.

An unnamed chain-smoking taxi driver (Nebojsa Glogovac) goes into a bar and tells the policeman sitting there with a neckbrace, Dimitri (Bercek), who has numerous bones broken and can never work again after some unknown assailant attacked him with a hammer and a crowbar, that he’s the one who did it. The taxi driver tells him he did it as payback for what the mean-spirited cop did to him when he was a kid.

Probably the most violent sketch in a film (and I couldn’t argue if you chose another scene more sadistic), is the one between two longtime friends sparring at a gym. When one of them (Lazar Ristovkski) sheepishly tells his partner that he had sex with the other man’s wife while he was away in the army, the other says she’s only a woman as he sports a big grin. As they continue sparring, the pair begin swapping confessions throughout all the years they knew each other. One poisoned the other’s dog and is not only the former lover of his wife but he’s the father of the other’s son. The physical punches get harder spurred on by the confessions and the conflict ends in the shower, as one fatally attacks the other with a broken beer bottle.

When the killer (Lazar) runs away and boards a train in a drunken stupor, he spots an attractive woman (Sofrenovic) reading in the compartment and attempts to rape her. But she pulls out of her luggage a hand-grenade her dead soldier husband gave her and they both get blown up in each other’s arms, wrestling for the grenade. He then takes the grenade from her with his brute strength and pulls the pin while holding onto her so she can’t escape his death wish. This serves as a metaphor for what the director is saying about the current thugs running the country and what their leadership will lead to.

The parade of violence continues with no let up when an angry youth (Ivan Bekjarev) boards a bus, intimidates some of the older passengers and gets so pissed that the driver is 15 minutes late that he takes the bus for a joy ride. He then flusters a young woman (Mirjana) by fondling her, cutting off her blouse button with his knife, and making her spread her legs while he forces an old man to look at her.

When Mirjana flees the bus after the bus driver returns to attack the young man she meets her jealous boyfriend George (Toni Mihajovoksi), who berates her for being in that situation as they drive to get cocaine from Topi. Once there, Topi and his inexperienced sidekick intimidate the couple and Topi attempts to humiliate her by stripping her. He then breaks her fingers and is about to rape her when the young man drops his gun aghast at the rape and George picks up the gun, humiliated after being forced to sing a Macedonian patriotic song. He therefore has no trouble shooting Topi. The inexperienced young man runs into the street and is mistaken for a gas thief, as a mob corners him when he tries to climb a fence to escape. A match is dropped by the omnipresent taxi driver and a gas explosion occurs in the area where the siphoned parked cars are located.

The film had a raw power which cannot be denied but that power was also the film’s main fault, as everything about it was just too bleak. Every character was made out to be either a loser or a sadist — probably not unlike President Milosevic and his henchmen. The film’s theme is simply taken from a quote by one of its characters: “This is a goddamn lousy country: Why would anyone want to come back?” That seems to be true from what I have seen, but the question for me is — why would anyone want to see this film? And, I think the answer is, that in all the brutality shown, it is hard to deny that this is the way it is. The horrors of that country seem to be an everyday thing and one can only feel dazed and revolted by what is going on. But this is not an entertaining film (I don’t consider the film’s gallows humor to be entertaining). It’s a message film, saying these kind of horrors happened many times in history before and they will continue to happen if we forget history. To hammer home that point it is mentioned how the country forgot what it was like to be ruled by the Turks for 500 hundred years and by the Krauts during WW11, and how easy it is for other countries to be mistaken that all this violence can’t happen to them, also.

REVIEWED ON 12/12/2000 GRADE: C+

Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”