Cabaret Balkan begins with an incident of road rage. A hapless teenage tough, weaving through the dark streets of Belgrade in an unlicensed yellow cab acquired from who knows where, is so intent on terrorizing a pretty young woman out walking by herself that he slams into a parked car. The car’s owner, outraged by this assault on his most prized possession, single-handedly demolishes the cab and then pursues the driver to his father’s apartment where he proceeds to smash a lifetime accumulation of furniture and chotchkes. That his attention is diverted just when he’s about to strangle a pair of twittering songbirds is such a relief that the scene tips toward comedy, albeit of the darkest variety.
It’s a canny opening gambit by director Goran Paskaljevic, since road rage is the closest experience we in the so-called civilized world have to the roiling anger that is a way of life in the former Yugoslavia. Having been reminded of our own irrational outbursts and disproportionate desire for revenge on anyone who slows us down or steals a parking place we assumed was ours for the taking, we cannot regard the characters in Paskaljevic’s film, no matter how badly they treat one another, as less human than we.
And they do treat one another very badly indeed. Cabaret Balkan is shaped as a series of vaudeville blackout sketches; but the punch line in almost all of
them is an explosive act of violence. Set in Belgrade in 1995, the film involves about 20 characters who cross paths during the course of a single night. With nerves frayed by a decade of civil war and by the poverty caused by the economic embargo imposed on the Milosevic regime, they respond to every encounter in full fight or flight mode. The film’s original title, The Powder Keg, is a longstanding metaphor for the Balkans, but here it also seems to describe how under such pressure, every person is potentially a walking time bomb and how individual acts of violence fuel the giant conflagration at the end of the film.
But the new, sexier title, Cabaret Balkan, is apt in another way, making the connection between Belgrade today and Berlin in the ’30s. It also underscores the film’s gallows humor, the vivacity of Paskaljevic’s filmmaking, and the panache of the ensemble cast. By constructing the film as a theatrical entertainment—even when the events it depicts are most dire— and giving us front-row seats, Paskaljevic puts us on the side of these Belgradians. I wouldn’t want to be the young woman trapped in a railroad compartment by the drunken boxer who has just finished carving up his best friend with a broken bottle and now wants to top off the night with a rape; but the position Paskaljevic places the viewer in—watching from the outside—allows her to feel awed by the life force raging within him, or, to put it another way, to feel that cathartic, Aristotelian blend of pity and terror.
The boxer is played by the great Lazar Ristovski who takes over the screen the way Depardieu used to and, occasionally, still does. Ristovski played Blacky, the leading character in Emir Kusturica’s Underground, and his galvanic presence is one of the reasons that one can’t help but compare the two films. Admirable for its sustained, feverish intensity and epic sweep, Underground is also a mess, and the attack on it for being pro-
Serbian (though Kusturica is a Bosnian Muslim) somewhat justified. Cabaret Balkan is a tougher and politically sharper film. Paskaljevic, a Serb who lives in Paris, is an opponent of both the Milosevic regime and the NATO bombing of Kosovo. Cabaret Balkan is not a didactic film, but its political message is clear. In every scene, Paskaljevic shows that by taking out their anger and guilt and frustration on one other, or even worse, hoping they can avoid trouble by keeping quiet, these people are engaged in collective suicide.
A more oblique view of the devastation of war, Basile Sallustio’s My Brother, My Sister, Sold for a Fistful of Lire is a documentary about a middle-aged Italian woman’s attempt to find the siblings whom her father gave up for adoption nearly 50 years earlier. During the decade that followed World War II, thousands of Italian children were sent to America for adoption, some because they were orphaned, some because their parents were too poor to feed them. Pia Dilisa, who still lives on the farm where she was born in southern Italy, was troubled since girlhood by the loss of her younger brother and two sisters and also by the persistent rumor that her father had, in fact, sold them to the church.
Accompanied by the filmmaker, a nephew by marriage, she embarks on an investigation that takes her from the local church to the Vatican, and finally to New York and Chicago. Dilisa only wants to find out what became of her sibs, but her questioning inevitably leads to questions about the church’s role and specifically about who profited from these adoptions. The treatment she receives from almost all officials of the church, ranging from shamefaced stonewalling to blatant attacks on her motives and integrity, is the meat of the film. The lure is Dilisa herself, a sturdy, forthright, intelligent woman who’s more than a match for all these men with their self-importance and their secrecy. Like all investigations, My Brother, My Sister has an element of suspense, but I have to say, I never doubted that God was on Dilisa’s side.