Friday, January 02, 2009

First Film of 2009: Cargo 200

It’s 1984 and Big Brother is dying of cancer. Andropov has passed into the great dustbin of history, and the Soviet Union is adrift in an economic and moral malaise. Those who hold power, abuse it, while the country’s next generation of leaders return from Afghanistan in coffins, callously dubbed “Cargo 200” by the Soviet military. Such is the Soviet reality recreated in Alexey Balabanov’s shockingly brutal drama Cargo 200 (foreign trailer here), opening today in New York.

The Kazakov Brothers are members of the old guard. Misha is a Colonel assigned to a provincial post and Artem is a professor of scientific atheism in then Leningrad. On his way to visit their mother in Leninsk, an industrial city that looks depressed and rundown even by Soviet standards, Artem stops at his brother’s flat. There he meets Valera, his niece’s sorta-kinda fiancé, who is deeply involved in sketchy black market business.

Proceeding to Leninsk, the professor’s car breaks down, forcing him to seek help at the home of Alexey, a mysterious, hard-drinking moonshiner. Even a professor of scientific atheism can tell there is something very wrong about Alexey’s home, but he endures a religious debate with the angry drunk (frankly faring quite badly), while Sunka, his host’s Vietnamese servant, fixes his car. Artem is so relieved to be on his way, he never learns who the peculiar man hanging about outside Alexey’s place was.

As soon as the professor leaves, Valera shows up looking for grain alcohol with a girl he picked up clubbing, Angelica, the daughter of the local party boss. When Valera passes out, Alexey tries to have his way with Angelica, but the mystery man outside decides to take her for himself, killing Sunka in the process. Holding her prisoner as his sex slave, the mystery man turns out to be one Zhurov, the local militia captain, played with chilling restraint by Alexey Poluyan. Angelica warns him her fiancé will seek retribution when he returns from his tour of duty in Afghanistan, but her threats do not scare Zhurov. He happens to know her intended will be arriving soon as Cargo 200.

As the search for Angelica intensifies (the daughter of a party boss does not simply disappear, after all), Artem develops suspicions he is too cautious to pursue. Eventually this causes a crisis of disbelief for the academician of atheism, ultimately leading him to the church. It is a truly Russian irony.

Supposedly based on an actual case, what happens during Angelica’s captivity is absolutely vile and horrific. However, it is not exploitation simply for the sake of sadism. It is in fact a withering look at the moral bankruptcy of an evil empire in decline. At the risk of sounding like a promiscuous quote dropper, Cargo 200 could be thought of as Dostoyevsky if adapted by the early 1970’s Wes Craven, but bear in mind, that is not necessarily meant to sound inviting.

Cargo 200 is a remarkable film, but it is tough stuff, decidedly not for everyone. Alexander Simonov’s cinematography and Pavel Parhomenko’s set design evoke the washed out landscapes and decrepit Brutalist architecture that were almost as oppressive as the Communist system itself. Balabanov punctuates his film’s unremitting tension with scenes of abject shock in a masterful, if arguably nihilistic, achievement in filmmaking. Opening today in New York at the Cinema Village, Cargo 200 is an unforgettably disturbing film.