The Powder Keg

MC Mad Chaos: Nikola Ristanovski in Goran Paskaljevic's Cabaret Balkan

Ah, Belgrade in August: Open-air markets glistening with the colors of harvest-time vegetables, the deserted Danube at Kalemegdan Fort smelling of fish and breeze, cafés full of men chain-smoking and guzzling beer at eight in the morning. Downtown is swamped with foot traffic--young, old, human, canine, strolling past vandalized American and British cultural centers. On Nemanjina Street, reams of old cable and pieces of concrete are woven into the curbside trees--remains of the two gaping orifices that are the bombed-out Yugoslav army headquarters, now said to be full of unexploded cluster bombs. In New Belgrade, across the river, the Chinese embassy has been split in two, like a model cross-section, and you see pieces of life--an intact blue sofa, a broken chandelier floating in piles of shattered glass. There is still a guard on duty, protecting who knows what.

This is postwar Belgrade, which I visited a few weeks ago. If you step outside and walk around, keeping your vision in soft focus, it's as if nothing ever happened. There are beggars, there are gold-chained Mafiosi; there are women in Prada shoes, and barefoot Gypsy orphans. The markets are full of food, and the 200,000 Serb refugees from Kosovo are well-ensconced in cities of the interior. People are living the same lives they've lived for the last ten years under Milosevic, only each year the situation has gotten markedly worse. Today most Serbs are unemployed (see headline: "NATO Bombs Car Factories and Petrochemical Plants"), but they'll almost always have money for a round of slivovitz for themselves and their buddies. My friend Sanja calls this deception joie de vivre. I call it resilience, while Goran Paskaljevic, the director of Cabaret Balkan, would call it denial.

Cabaret Balkan is the first Yugoslav film to open in the U.S. following the NATO air war, and it's a morbid pity that it wasn't released here six months sooner. (The film did screen in April at the Mpls./St. Paul Film Festival under its former title, The Powder Keg.) Paskaljevic, who is an articulate critic of Milosevic's regime and of Serbia's role in the recent Balkan wars, has the instinct of an animal and the optimism of a man dying of cancer. Cabaret Balkan is set in 1995, but it could well be set in the chaotic days preceding the bombs. In the fashion of Arthur Schnitzler's La Ronde, the film is a series of interconnected vignettes that occur during a single, rainy winter night in Belgrade. We know we are in for something sinister when a kohl-eyed Cabaret emcee (Nikola Ristanovski), wearing a glittering boa, sniggers at the camera and announces: "Welcome. Tonight, I am going to fuck with you."

At the beginning of the night, a reckless teenage driver without a license crashes into the beloved beetle of a fortysomething man (Bogdan Diklic). Seething with rage, the man orders the teenager to get out of the car, which, after the boy's refusal, he proceeds to pound. The teenager escapes in an instant of diversion, but the man later appears at his apartment, buddy in tow, ready to kick his ass. After a round of homemade slivovitz is served by the boy's befuddled father (Bata Stojkovic), the unappeased victims-turned-executioners shatter everything of value in the sitting room, including a picture of the boy's deceased mother.

As the night goes on, the violence grows more senseless and agonizing. In one of the film's most brilliant sequences, two lifelong friends (Dragan Nikolic and Underground's Lazar Ristovski) meet at the gym for their regular boxing workout. Between punches and jabs, they begin exchanging confessions of brutal mutual betrayals--a poisoned dog, a sabotaged car, a stolen wife. As the punches grow more determined and aggressive, each man assures the other that he is the best friend he has ever had, and that he could never not forgive him. In good Serbian spirit, they even down a couple of beers between rounds, leaning against the ring and hugging each other. "To our health!" they toast each other giddily. (Toasting followed by bashing is one of Cabaret Balkan's more cynical motifs.) Later, in the dressing-room shower, the most searing confession of all is dropped into the overheated atmosphere. Fed up, the victim cracks a beer bottle and slashes his best friend to death.

But Paskaljevic's victims are never victims more than once. In fact, they morph into assailants or ambivalent bystanders before we've had the chance to feel empathy for them. As one violent episode bleeds into another, and the brutality quotient grows to a fever pitch, the viewer may find herself emotionally blindsided, like an autistic child dropped into the middle of a frat party. When I saw the film in Belgrade, a young girl of about seven laughed uncontrollably for the duration of a bone-chilling scene involving a bus hijacking. One may question her mother's judgment in bringing her to such a film, but in reality, the girl's reaction was not in the least at odds with Cabaret Balkan's schizoid content. By laughing at the violence in Cabaret Balkan, one seems to grope toward a common language with those who snort a line of coke, toast to their health, and proceed to lynch someone to death.  

After seeing a film like this, you may wonder about Serbian karma, on top of the Serbs' capacity for explosive rage--though Paskaljevic seems most interested in how the two intersect. "This place is a hemorrhoid on the asshole of the world," declares an asinine smuggler toward the end of the film, later adding in prettier language: "The Balkans--a powder keg." A more eloquent summation is hardly needed.

When it premiered in Belgrade last year, Cabaret Balkan had a fantastic turnout. More than 250,000 Belgraders saw the film, making it one of the best-attended movies in the history of Yugoslav cinema. Clearly, Cabaret Balkan's home audience has a capacity for seeing its tortured, grisly side, however metaphorically packaged. To them, the film offers not a glimmer of hope--but then again, neither does reality.

Alas, there is plenty of hope for humankind in Black Cat, White Cat, the other major Yugoslav film released stateside this season. (Is it just my sick mind, or does it really take a NATO air war for Yugoslav films to crop up in pairs at the American art house?) First, a bit of background: The celebrated, Sarajevo-born director Emir Kusturica appears (at least on the surface) to have subdued his political views with Black Cat, White Cat, following the political controversies surrounding his 1995 Palme d'Or winner Underground. (In a nutshell: Kusturica was accused of pro-Serbian nationalism, treason, and other ideological drivel by Alain Finkielkraut, Bernard-Henri Levy, and a few other stuck-up French intellectuals. Many tirades were exchanged in Le Monde, until Kusturica announced that he was sick of it all, and that he was retiring from filmmaking. Partly due to this controversy, Underground never earned a wide release in the U.S.) While Underground was filmed with the war in Bosnia still in progress, Black Cat, White Cat is Kusturica's first peacetime film since Time of the Gypsies in 1989. Not incidentally, the director's subject is once again the Gypsies of Yugoslavia.

Kusturica recently declared in a French interview that he had returned to life--"to colors and light." (See "Kusturica Keeps the Peace," below, for more of his views on his artistic rebirth.) Indeed, Black Cat, White Cat, photographed by Frenchman Thierry Arbogast (She's So Lovely, The Fifth Element), is positively iridescent. The Danube (on the banks of which much of the film's action takes place) shimmers in the afternoon sun, while fields of poppies and giant sunflowers pulsate with Fauvist brightness. And the characters who populate Black Cat--related to other Kusturica prototypes in their fondness for Kalashnikovs, slivovitz, and brass bands--are essentially a crowd of happy-go-lucky drifters.

Matko (Bajram Severdzan) and his teenage son Zare (Florijan Ajdini) are small-time gasoline smugglers living in a shack on the Danube's flat shoreline. Their neighbors, a few hundred yards downshore, are Sujka (Ljubica Adzovic), the owner of a ramshackle country inn, and her granddaughter Ida (Branka Katic). Sujka is a Gypsy matron of the variety one often spots at open-air markets in Belgrade, Sarajevo, or Skopje: big-bosomed, sunburned, and business-minded. For a one-time variety act at her inn, she books The Black Obelisk, an obese singer in dark shades celebrated for pulling nails out of planks with her butt muscles. The inn is packed, bets are flying, and Sujka scores big. As she plucks the nail from betwixt the gluteal cheeks of her favorite diva, her eyes practically reflect dinar signs.

Matko isn't so lucky. In dire financial straits, he is counting on a promising new deal to pull him out of the mud. The deal involves buying three train wagons of imported gasoline at bargain prices. Matko pays a visit to Grga (Adnan Bekir), a paraplegic rubbish-dump tycoon and friend of his father's, to beg for a loan. He also enlists the help of Dadan (the superb Srdjan Todorovic of Underground), an unscrupulous, coke-sniffing gangster with a perm and about three kilos of gold jewelry around his neck. With several different sets of fingers and financial interests in the pie, the gas deal falls catastrophically apart, threatening to sabotage the love lives of Zare, Ida, Dadan's ultrashort sister Afrodita, and Grga's ultratall grandson Grga Major.

As with Time of the Gypsies, Kusturica has assembled a cast of mostly nonprofessionals--local gypsies found at open casting calls around Yugoslavia. All of them, but especially Severdzan and Ajdini, have abundant comedic talent and an impressive ease in front of the camera. Kusturica's baroque world vision, I hazard to guess, is a Gypsy vision, too: high on emotion, rowdiness, and surrealism.  

It is positively eerie to watch Black Cat, White Cat now, following the war, and to realize two things: one, that the area around the river north of Belgrade, where the film was shot, has been repeatedly targeted by NATO bombs; and two, that Kusturica has made the most intoxicatingly hopeful film of his career as a prelude to the darkest chapter in recent Balkan history. Underground's end credits read, "This story never ends," while Black Cat, White Cat finishes with the words "Happy End." Cabaret Balkan's final words have an ominous air about them as well: Drunk and morose, the emcee wraps it up nicely with--what else?--a toast to "our health." These three lines, like bizarre fortune-wheel inscriptions, reverberate in the manner of an accidental mantra for Serbs and Serbia today: To our health! This story never ends! Happy end?!


Cabaret Balkan starts Friday at Lagoon Cinema; Black Cat, White Cat is playing Wednesday and Thursday at Lagoon Cinema.

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