The Powder Keg,” a devastating microcosm of life in contemporary Belgrade, is arguably the best film to date of director Goran Paskaljevic (“Someone Else’s America.”) Structured similarly to Robert Altman’s “Short Cuts,” pic intros a gallery of characters who live in Belgrade during one hectic, at times frightening night. Savagely funny, uncompromisingly critical and impeccably staged and acted, the film is filled with insight into the makeup of the Serbian character. It should perform well in Euro arthouses, with chances good for other specialized distribution. Eurotube programmers will be eager for this one.
Pic opens with a direct nod to “Cabaret,” with a Joel Grey-type emcee, in heavy makeup, cheerfully warning the viewer that “tonight I’m going to fuck with you.” Pic proper begins with the arrival home of Mane (Miki Manojlovic), who, it turns out, hopes to be reconciled with his estranged wife. The taxi driver bringing him downtown from the airport questions his wisdom in returning to “this lousy country,” noting that anyone with any brains has already left. Meanwhile, the car radio reports Euro pressure on the Yugoslav government to stop the fighting in Kosovo.
Having established its credentials from the very start, pic rockets off on a journey into the heart of the city. Among the numerous characters intro’d are a family of Bosnian Serb refugees forced to live in a garage without electricity or gas; a middle-aged boxer so damaged by life that he kills his best friend and then comes on to a frightened girl on a train; an angry young man who hijacks a bus when the driver dallies too long over his coffee; a VW driver moved to extreme road rage after a minor traffic accident; a former student revolutionary who now traffics in alcohol, cigarettes and drugs; an ex-cop so badly beaten by one of his former victims that he can hardly move; and a youth attacked by a mob who mistakenly think he’s a car thief.
Each of these characters reps an aspect of the Serb character — romantic, fiery-tempered, soulful, fatalistic, violent, bitingly funny and self-critical yet quick to take offense. Many famous Yugoslav actors appear in these roles, and admirers of the Yugoslav cinema of 30 years ago will recognize a number of familiar faces.
The triumph of Paskaljevic is that although he fills the pic with characters, the audience never for a moment loses track of who’s who and what’s going on. In this respect, the film is a model of clarity and precision. The director, working from a successful stage play, also manages to make the film savagely humorous in a way that leavens even the most shocking scenes.
Among the standout cast, it’s especially worth noting Lazar Ristovski as the boxer who terrorizes the young woman on the train; Mirjana Jokovic as Ana, who suffers a scary experience on a hijacked bus and an even scarier one when she’s reunited with her Macedonian fiance; and Nebojsa Milovanovic as a Bosnian Serb youth who rebels against his family’s wretched living conditions and who features in the film’s powerful climax, in which the voice of the “ordinary” citizen of Belgrade can be heard.
What’s most disturbing, perhaps, is that the incidents portrayed in the film could occur in almost any big city in the world. We are, Paskaljevic suggests, all sitting on a powder keg.
Fine production credits enhance this intelligent, provocative, impressive film.