Willkommen, bienvenue, welcome, a kabarett, au cabaret, to the blood-choked sewer of aggression that is "Cabaret Balkan." Don't look for Joel Grey, because he ain't in the house.
"Cabaret Balkan," an illuminating bit of nastiness from the tinderbox of Europe, is an embittered self-examination that finds its own country and culture extremely wanting. Say the wrong thing--or say anything--and you get a knuckle sandwich in the belly, or a broken bottle in the face or, worst of all, a grenade on your train ride.
The movie, derived by director Goran Paskaljevic from a play by the Macedonian dramatist Dejan Dukovski, follows one violent night in the Belgrade of 1995 and, like its namesake in the Kit Kat Klub, it rotates among a number of interlocking characters, assembling a kind of mosaic of society. Characters come and go, live and die, and the survivors meet again in the morning. The tone varies though the tendency toward violence never does: Sometimes the violence is random, sometimes mordant, sometimes banal. It's even funny: One elaborate tale ends when a romantic delusionary is rewarded for his ardor with a shovel in the head. It's horrifying--but try not to laugh.
Perhaps the best of these stories--a refreshing anodyne to the general gloom of the others--is a farcical exercise in which a melancholy Serb named Michael (Miki Manojlovic) has returned from wherever with but one wish: to recapture the love of the woman he once abandoned (Mirjana Karanovic). He sets about to produce a reintroduction to her calculated to melt the flintiest of female hearts, complete to an orchestra that at a key moment will appear on a boat to play romantic classical music by candlelight as he presents her with flowers. All is well and good until she shows up with her boyfriend.
One of the others appears to have been influenced by that exemplar of the American ethos, Quentin Tarantino. (In fact in some ways, the film more resembles a Serbian "Pulp Fiction" than a Serbian "Cabaret.") A thug and his apprentice kidnap a couple, take them to their hidden headquarters, and colorfully abuse them, building toward more arcane pleasures. Alas, the male of the kidnapped couple is himself a thug, and rather neatly turns the tables.
But on and on "Cabaret Balkan" goes, singing its sad and bitter song. What emerges is a picture of a society afflicted with too much testosterone, not enough impulse control, no hope, no jobs, and no power. There aren't even any malls to go to. In his interviews, Paskaljevic has gone to lengths to point out that he meant the film to be somehow optimistic. Maybe so, but I missed that point entirely.
Cabaret Balkan (100 minutes, at the Cineplex Odeon 3) isn't rated, but it's very, very violent.
CAPTION: Nikola Ristanovski stars as an esoteric cabaret artist in "Cabaret Balkan," where any night could be one's last.