Cabaret Balkan
Director: Goran Paskaljevic
Screenplay: Dejan Dukovski & Goran Paskaljevic and Filip David & Zoran Andric, from the play The Powder Keg by Dejan Dukovski
Cast: Nikola Ristanovski, Nebojsa Glogovac, Miki Manojlovic
NY Distribution Status: now playing (Paramount Classics)

Grade: C+

Several years ago, reviewing Goran Paskaljevic's cutesy English-language picture Someone Else's America, I griped about his fatuous depiction of illegal immigrants as kooky teddy bears. "A treacly fable," quoth your hard-hearted correspondent; if you put your ear to the screen, and listened carefully, you could almost hear me retching. Perhaps Paskaljevic took such criticism to heart, because there's not an ounce of cuddliness to be found in his incendiary, punishingly bleak, Belgrade-set followup, originally and appropriately titled The Powder Keg; unfortunately, there's not an ounce of insight into the national character, either, although a portrait of a community in war-torn crisis is clearly what everybody involved had in mind. The movie takes place over the course of a single night, and is essentially plotless, yet there are enough incidents of casual violence to fuel at least three of Steven Seagal's environmentally-conscious action flicks; whenever two people meet, you can feel reasonably confident that one or both of them will be dead or wounded, or at the very least threatened with grievous bodily harm, in very short order. The screenwriters make a token attempt to create narrative segues, with characters from one episode making a cameo appearance in the next, but the movie is ultimately little more than a series of self-contained, uniformly repulsive blackout sketches, all of which illustrate the same very basic theme: Life in What Used to Be Yugoslavia Sucks, Man. There are moments of great power throughout -- I got a particular kick out of the unexpected punchline to the Miki Manojlovic segment, which I'll call "The Revenge of Ralph Bellamy" -- but there's no sense of progression or escalation, much less of summation; the movie simply stumbles from one ugly incident to the next, and after a while it begins to feel cheaply cynical rather than deeply concerned. It's also tainted, now and again, by a brand of sadomasochistic machismo that seems to be peculiar to Balkan cinema (and which is more prominent still in Srdjan Dragojevic's forthcoming The Wounds, which I consequently liked even less), in which tough, rugged men's men laugh together and then punch each other brutally in the face (or worse) and then laugh together some more. The pugnacity is so relentless that it's the audience that winds up feeling pummelled; I didn't hear much bluff, hearty laughter, though.