The belated release of Goran Paskaljevic's Cabaret Balkan (formerly known as The Powder Keg) in Australia allows us to compare it with a similar, lesser film – Paul T. Anderson's Magnolia (1999).
The plot is another mosaic of incidents, this time involving a large group of characters making their way through a rough night in Belgrade. But where Anderson can only gesture towards some vague American malaise via situations involving illness, breakdown and ageing, Paskaljevic has a much keener grasp of his social and political context.
It is 1995, post-war but pre-Kosovo. Balkan society is in a state of total collapse. Unemployment has hit many, and the most basic, essential services (such as public transport) are a joke.
The narrative is pieced together through invariably spectacular incidents involving automobile rides – colliding cars, a hijacked bus, a couple too far off the main road, a taxi driver dispensing gruff wisdom. Belgrade's urban geography is rendered as a spooky assortment of empty shacks, cramped dwellings and sinister streets.
What happens to people's hearts and souls after they have lived though such an intolerable history of suffering and deprivation? Paskaljevic's dramatic thesis, expanded from a play by Dejan Dukovski, is simple but powerful. The condition of war has been internalised by every citizen. Mistrust, anger, aggression, greed and opportunism rule all social interactions.
Where Cabaret Balkan does echo Magnolia is in its despairing fixation on masculine psychosis. Almost every man in Paskaljevic's Belgrade is wildly out of control: best friends clash, young guys paranoiacally interrogate their girlfriends, criminals delight in their menacing, sexually predatory ways. Ubiquitous acts of betrayal clear the way for even more horrifying, inhumane behaviour.
For all its bleakness, Cabaret Balkan – unlike the plodding Magnolia – works hard to inject a sense of life and energy into proceedings. These drunken, crazed characters, whatever misery they bear or inflict, at least have a residual spirit of resistance. The wild climax to which the film builds registers as both apocalyptic and euphoric.
Using some of the actors familiar from Emir Kusturica's Underground (1995) – Miki Manojlovic, Mirjana Jokovic, Lazar Ristovski – Paskaljevic creates a highly theatrical, almost carnival-like atmosphere. He does this so effectively, in fact, that the inclusion of a sneering cabaret host to frame events seems a little superfluous.
© Adrian Martin March 2000