Cargo 200

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Crossing Europe Film Festival

LINZ, Austria -- Cinema has produced many nightmarish visions of the former Soviet Union, but few so extreme as writer-director Alexey Balabanov's gruelingly uncompromising "Cargo 200" ("Gruz 200"). A savagely unpleasant journey into the darkest corners of human depravity, this absorbingly unpredictable and original film emerges as the blackest of black comedies. This is a bitter treat for strong-stomached, adventurous audiences tired of safe arthouse fare. Commercial prospects are obviously dicey, but arch-provocateur Balabanov's vision is so distinctive and unadulterated that it deserves a chance beyond the festival circuit.

The action unfolds in 1984, during Konstantin Chernenko's fleeting tenure as USSR's head honcho. Mikhail Gorbachev (briefly glimpsed here on TV) is waiting in the wings and the wind of change is discernible. Typical of the disaffected youth is leather-jacketed Valera (Leonid Bicevin), who picks up teenage friend-of-a-friend Angelika (Agniya Kuznetsova) and drives off in search of cheap booze. This they find at the isolated farmstead owned by taciturn Alexei (scene-stealingly gruff Alexei Serebryakov). After Valera quickly passes out from excessive vodka-swilling, Angelika is left in a dangerously vulnerable position. Gimlet-eyed cop Zhurov (Alexey Poluyan) takes full advantage, whisking her off in handcuffs to his seedy city-center apartment.

Balabanov's indictment of the Soviet system comes across loud and clear although it's debatable whether the corrupt institutions merely enable monsters like Zhurov to operate unpunished, or actually encourage their brutally inhumane behavior. "Cargo 200" -- code-word for the corpses of Soviet soldiers, including Angelika's hapless fiance, shipped back from the Afghan front-lines -- has an oddly beguiling narrative structure, looping among various loosely-connected subplots before narrowing its focus as Zhurov -- via Poluyan's mesmerisingly reptilian performance -- takes center-stage. Along the way Balabanov sketches a devastating portrait of a very precise moment in time, making particularly strong use of the era's cheesy pop tunes.

Production company: CTB Film Company
Cast: Alexey Poluyan, Alexey Serebryakov, Leonid Becevin, Yuri Stepanov, Agniya Kuznetsova.
Director/screenwriter: Alexey Balabanov.
Executive producer: Maxim Ukhanov.
Producer: Sergei Selyanov.
Director of photography: Alexander Simonov.
Production designer: Pavel Parkhomenko.
Costume designer: Nadezhda Vasileva.
Editor: Tatyana Kuzmichyova.
Sales: Intercinema Ltd, Moscow
No MPAA rating, 90 minutes.

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