Agniya Kuznetsova as Angelica and Alexey Poluyan as Zhurov in the Russian-language film "Cargo 200".  Alexey Serebryakov's film opened today at the Cinema Village in Manhattan.  (Photo: Disinformation Company/via The New York Times)

In The U.S.S.R. In 1984, A Carnival Of Death And Madness
By Omar P.L. Moore/January 2, 2009

"Cargo 200" is like a maliciously trained pit bull; it nips relentlessly at your ankles, until it finally sinks its teeth in and doesn't let go.  Alexey Balabanov's film tells the stories of atrocities committed by the Russian authorities during the latter stages of 1984, as Communism in the Soviet Union is in its waning days before the onset of Mikhail Gorbachev's Perestroika and Glasnost.  Based on true events -- and when one sees that designation in a film one should typically be wary -- "Cargo 200" (a term for Russian soldiers returning to the motherland in zinc-lined coffins from the failed war in Afghanistan), tells the story of Angelica (Agniya Kuznetsova), the daughter of the Secretary of the regional party committee is kidnapped.  What happens to Angelica is cruel, brutal and unrelenting.  If what you see isn't enough to turn your stomach, the carnival of death that surrounds and finally overwhelms Mr. Balabanov's film should just about do it.

In "Cargo 200", which opened exclusively today in New York City at the Cinema Village, Zhurov (Alexei Poluyan) is a sociopath who claims to be Angelica's wife -- he's a Norman Bates type who wants to prove himself to his drunken and oblivious mother, who shouts racial epithets at the television and eats while buzzing flies populate her home.  She hears continuous gunshots and shouts from people in obvious pain close by but tries to ignore it all.  In classic conflict-of-interest fashion, her son is a police chief who is conducting investigations of both a murder committed in the suburban house he owns and the kidnapping of Angelica.  Meanwhile, Valera (Leonid Bichevin), an adulterate drunkard and drug-dealing man who met Angelica at a disco just hours earlier and drives her to Zhurov's house in search of alcohol, has managed to escape the scene of the kidnapping.  Where art thou, drug dealer, you ask?  Zhurov (based loosely on infamous Russian serial killer Gennady Mikhasevich) seems not to care.  He is too busy being a symbolic tablet of the inhumanity of Soviet law enforcement, one of the most loyal enforcers in the Gulag that the late Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn once wrote about.  In every situation, the matter immediately before Zhurov is the one for which he cares most.  (There's an additional character who repeatedly states that he is a professor of scientific Atheism, and he is as much a foreshadowing of the film's events as anyone.  How can there be a god, one might ask, if he or she allows these inhumane things we see to take place?)

The production notes for "Cargo 200" (aka Gruz 200) state that Mr. Balabanov's well-known quote is "if you are given lined paper -- write across the lines."  In this, his eleventh film, Mr. Balabanov doesn't just write, he splatters his script page (and the screen) with the passion and urgency of a young teenager who has been ignored for years.  (Think of the title subject of Pearl Jam's 1990's song "Jeremy".)  The director wants your attention.  He gets it.  Mr. Balabanov knows how to push our buttons and anger his audience with Zhurov's extremes.  There's a Hitchcockian feel to "Cargo 200", of being trapped in a nightmare.  The film was released in Russia in 2007 to critical praise and considered one of Mr. Balabanov's best (he directed the trilogy of "Brother" films.)  Everything about the "Cargo 200" cinematic landscape and tone is cold and exacting -- except ironically, much of the Russian weather.  Alexander Siminov's cinematography evokes a Sam Peckinpah-like sensibility: raw, stark and a little lurid.  Mr. Balabanov comes from the school of filmmakers like Mr. Peckinpah ("Wild Bunch", "Straw Dogs"), Bruno Dumont ("Flanders", "Twentynine Palms") and Gaspar Noe ("I Stand Alone") who shock us with the random actions of their anti-heroes and make statements that linger long after the end credits have run their course.

Films or documentary features can be good without necessarily being entertaining even if they are downer material ("Schindler's List", "Night And Fog", "Jonestown: The Life And Death Of Peoples' Temple", etc.,) but a film that isn't entertaining and isn't particularly good -- well, that's "Cargo 200" in a nutshell.  You never know what you are going to get in Mr. Balabanov's film but once you get a hint of what lurks around the corner, you get it -- again and again.  It's not that "Cargo 200" attempts to be outrageous or gratuitous, as has been the case with some of the films by American directors like Todd Solondz (specifically "Storytelling"), but Mr. Balabanov's film plays as a continuous reel of misadventures and exploits that reek of pulp.  If you were to watch a string of movies back to back, say, "Pulp Fiction", "Paris Trout", "Blue Velvet", "Irreversible" and "Straw Dogs" and take the worst of the situations that occur in each of them, "Cargo 200" is what you'd wind up with.  (That may be a convenient way to explain this film, but it isn't necessarily inaccurate either.) 

It matters little that some of the disturbing things we see in "Cargo 200" may have taken place in reality; there just isn't much of a story here that connects us enough to care, beyond the obvious alarm.  (There's a deeper oddity and perverseness to the film that is clearly meant as satire.)  In the end we are horrified and numbed rather than engaged and enlightened.  If portraying the horrors of the late-Soviet era is the goal of director Alexey Balabanov, then he succeeds mightily.

"Cargo 200" (Gruz 200) is not rated by the Motion Picture Association of America, although it contains graphic violence including rape via the forced insertion of a bottle, and some sexual content.  It is definitely intended for an adult audience.  The film is in the Russian language, with English subtitles.  The film's duration is one hour and 30 minutes.

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