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"Cabaret Balkan" is theater of the apt Serb

By Peter Keough

AUGUST 23, 1999:  Imagine a country in which everyone -- the men at any rate -- thinks that he's Joe Pesci in GoodFellas. To judge from recent headlines about hate and rage crimes, that country might be us. Be that as it may, the pariah country du jour, Yugoslavia, currently offers us a scapegoat onto which we can project our worst fears about ourselves.

So it goes without saying that the characters in Cabaret Balkan (formerly The Powder Keg) -- Goran Paskaljevic's sardonic, infuriating and hypnotic la ronde of domestic cleansing taking place one endless night in Belgrade -- are easy to hate. Neither do two recent genocidal wars with neighboring regions make them much more sympathetic. Which renders Paskaljevic's accomplishment all the more impressive. The fury, frustration, self-pity, and bullying impotence of his players here transcend national borders, instead indicting the inner jerk within us all.

"Why are you laughing at me?" asks Boris (Nikola Ristanovski), the recurring MC of the titular establishment at the film's beginning, a kohl-eyed creep who evokes less Joel Grey's Weimar wraith than Pesci's "Do you think I'm funny?" routine in Scorsese's deconstruction of macho nihilism. In fact, as was the genius of GoodFellas, the laughs here die in the throat and the groans give way to guilty guffaws. An unnerving tension between laughter and revulsion crackles through Cabaret, jumping from episode to episode with each linking character.

Beginning, appropriately, with a disgruntled taxi driver (Nebojsa Glogovac). After watching an incident of road rage that will expand later in the film into a microcosm of the entire Balkan tragedy, the cabbie spots a familiar face walking into a bar. Beefy Dimitri (Aleksandar Bercek), a former cop, has to drink the beer the cabbie buys him through a straw as he describes the brutal attack that left him crippled and incontinent and without a job.

As the cabbie presses for details -- the attacker put a bag over Dimitri's head and methodically broke 27 bones with a crowbar and a 20-pound hammer -- it dawns on the victim that his new friend is the perpetrator. Dimitri, it seems, had beaten him up randomly once before, and this brutal victimization is just one more in a series of endless paybacks. The tone hovers between sardonic comedy and outrage, pathos and nausea. Who deserves sympathy? Both? Neither?

It's almost a cinematic variation of the Helsinki syndrome, as the victim and the victimizer -- and often they are one in the same -- are trapped together and form a twisted bond. Nearly every segment in the film is a version of the old theatrical convention of the hostage situation, in which a captive audience is compelled to acknowledge the mutual humanity -- or inhumanity -- of his or, more significantly, her oppressor. We're all victims, goes the refrain, so let's screw everybody up.

The biggest victims of all, of course, are women. Even the disabled Dimitri feebly abuses a female bar patron, and in virtually every episode the butt of the joke is a hapless woman. What's more, they never strike back -- the closest a female comes to getting satisfaction is when a drunken brute (Lazar Ristovski), fresh from killing his best friend for screwing his wife, corners an innocent young woman (Ana Sofrenovic) in a railroad car. But she is literally hoisted by her own petard, and the explosive climax has the aura of a perverse romanticism.

The misogyny explored in Cabaret is so casual that Paskaljevic's own attitude appears ambiguous. Toward the end there's an episode in which a young punk (Sergej Trifunovic) commandeers a bus, terrorizing the passengers, in particular Ana (Mirjana Jokovic), a young woman who seems at first bemused by his efforts to stir the passengers from complacency. Ana is in danger of becoming a symbol of complacency herself, of deserving to be tormented, and her debasement may arouse viewer discomfort and anger at the filmmaker.

Until she escapes, only to have her boyfriend (Toni Mihajlovski) accuse her of cheating, until they find themselves captured by a pair of smugglers, and on and on into the greasy night and you kind of wish the NATO folks hadn't ended their bombing until they had exterminated the brutes. Which is exactly the kind of thinking -- wrathful, self-righteous, fear-ridden, and vindictive -- that sets off such powder kegs in the first place.

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