- Nikola Ristanovski, doing his best Joel Grey.
Cabaret Balkan, for instance, calls itself a French-Greek-Macedonian-Turkish-Yugoslav co-production with support from the Council of Europe and the participation of, among others, the Ministry of Culture of Serbia. In the old days, the Oscar Foreign Language Film qualifying committee would likely have called this simply a Yugoslavian film; but Yugoslavia ain't what it used to be.
It's not merely an issue of academic interest: Given the decade of war and divisiveness that has plagued the former Yugoslavia, its cinema -- once wide-ranging and inventive -- has, not surprisingly, become overwhelmed with political and ethnic themes. One might expect the area's filmmakers to be mounting defenses of one side or another. But, in fact, most of the current generation of directors grew up in a united Yugoslavia and think of themselves simply as Yugoslavian. Say what you will about Tito, he managed to enforce an amazing degree of harmony in a region with centuries of deeply held grudges.
With the death of communism, the former Yugoslavia exploded like a powder keg -- and, not coincidentally, The Powder Keg was the original title of this new film from Goran Paskaljevic (Tango Argentina, Someone Else's America). (The title of the movie, which won the International Critics' Prize at the Venice Film Festival, was changed to avoid confusion with an upcoming Kevin Costner vehicle.)
The title change is a welcome one. Cabaret Balkan better captures the tone of Paskaljevic's film: It may be an allegory about ethnic grudges, but its tone is far lighter than that would suggest. (The squeamish should still be aware that there are a few sadistic and violent sequences.) The very first images are of a heavily made-up MC (Nikola Ristanovski) at Belgrade's Cabaret Balkan night club, introducing the film à la Joel Grey in Cabaret. This sets the playful tone that runs throughout the film, despite its serious subject matter.
We quickly switch to a taxi driver (Nebojsa Glogovac) chatting up Michael (Miki Manojlovic, an actor with eyebrows like giant black caterpillars), a world-weary fare who has just returned from America. Michael is clearly being established as our protagonist. Or so we think.
When the taxi crosses paths with another car driven by a young man named Alex (Marko Urosevic), the camera takes off to follow the latter. And, when Alex causes an accident, the camera switches its attention to his victim (Bogdan Diklic), whom we stay with only briefly before picking up on his friend (Dragan Nikolic) and then to the friend's sparring partner (Lazar Ristovski).
By this point, it's become apparent that Paskaljevic is using the narrative structure of later Bunuel films such as The Phantom of Liberty, tying together a series of half-resolved sketches through the characters' chance encounters. But, about a half-hour in, just when we've given up hope of ever seeing Michael again, the camera happens upon him. In fact, Paskaljevic is working closer to the vein of Robert Altman in Nashville, building a portrait of a diverse community and emphasizing the tangle of connections that define that group -- whether its members acknowledge it or not.
The cast list specifies some of the characters as Bosnian Serbs, and a Central European audience presumably can immediately identify them as such by their speech. Few Americans will be able to, but that seems quite directly to the point: The various sides in all the bickering and confrontation in Cabaret Balkan could be reversed, and it wouldn't make much difference. Paskaljevic is describing a world of people who suddenly find themselves at liberty to deal with long-unsettled scores.
In some ways, the tone and themes of Cabaret Balkan recall Underground, the 1997 release from the well-known Yugoslavian filmmaker Emir Kusturica (Black Cat, White Cat; When Father Was Away on Business; Time of the Gypsies; Arizona Dreams) -- not the least because their casts are nearly identical. But, for all its fractured storytelling, Paskaljevic's film is tidier, more controlled. And its outlook is even more pessimistic.
Paskaljevic cites his characters' humor and humanity as a sign of hope, but it seems more a sign of wishful thinking. As entertaining as the film is, only a few of its stories turn out well. More than anything, the film's world seems a bottomless pit of grudges, from which there will be no end until only one person is left standing.