Cargo 200
[Gruz 200]

Russia, 2007
Color, 89 minutes
Russian with English subtitles
Director: Aleksei Balabanov
Screenplay: Aleksei Balabanov
Cinematography: Aleksandr Simonov
Art Direction: Pavel Parkhomenko
Sound: Mikhail Nikolaev
Cast: Aleksandr Bashirov, Leonid Bichevin, Leonid Gromov, Agniia Kuznetsova, Aleksei Poluian, Aleksei Serebriakov, Mikhail Skriabin, Iurii Stepanov
Producer: Sergei Sel'ianov
Production: STW Film Studio

Viewers familiar with Aleksei Balabanov know that when left to his own devices the director makes films that elicit such exclamations as Offensive! Perverted! Sexist! Violent! Nationalistic! These hallmark attributes, if put into their superlative forms, also describe Balabanov's latest release, Cargo 200, with one notable exception: nationalistic. For the first time Balabanov directs his criticism not at America or Chechnya, as he did in Brother 2 (2000) and War (2002) respectively, but at his own homeland, the Soviet Union, and in so doing surpasses a level of brutality rarely glimpsed on screen.

After making two commercial pictures—Dead Man's Bluff (2005) and It Doesn't Hurt (2006)— in order to ensure box office success for the STW studio, with which he unfailingly collaborates, Balabanov is done trying to please anyone. The most controversial of his films to date, Cargo 200 has faced certain difficulties. Initially, there was trouble securing a distributor willing to be associated with the movie. Before its official release, only the most strong-stomached film aficionados saw it at clandestine screenings organized by film clubs, and even then, people walked out. When Cargo 200 finally made it to theaters, though only in limited release, viewers under 21 were prohibited from buying tickets. In addition to the industry's misgivings, there were also qualms at the personal level: several well-known stars including Sergei Makovetskii, one of Balabanov's favorite actors, turned down offers to appear in this film, perhaps fearful that association with this horrifyingly gruesome portrayal of the Soviet Union would compromise their careers. (Oddly, despite his physical absence, Makovetskii's voice is heard throughout the film; it is dubbed over Leonid Gromov's.) Without a doubt these production and distribution complications testify to the risk Balabanov takes in creating such a damning depiction of late Soviet society. However, there can be no doubt that Balabanov crafts his seditious expose with skill and artistry.

Invoking George Orwell's dystopian novel, Balabanov sets his portrayal of hell on earth in 1984. The year has additional significance: it marks the historical middle of the Soviet Union's occupation of Afghanistan (1979-1989), the effects of which haunt the provincial town outside of Leningrad where the film takes place. There, the war has produced no heroes, only corpses dubbed in military shorthand as Cargo 200, a reference to the weight of the metal coffins they're shipped home in. But in much the same way that the Afghanistan war is neither just beginning nor near ending—a fact represented brilliantly by a prolonged, static shot of young soldiers boarding a cargo jet at the same time that coffins are being unloaded—the nightmarish world of provincial Russia is not a temporary anomaly. This is no night of the living dead, but rather a place characterized by sustained hopelessness with deep historical roots that shows no signs of improving anytime soon. Perhaps no visual motif captures the feeling of permanence better than cinematographer Aleksandr Simonov's lengthy takes of the provincial landscape. Unhurried, sweeping shots suggest an endless, rusting industrial wasteland.

The film's characters, each a product of this environment, relate to it variously. There are its loyal subjects like Misha (Iurii Stepanov), a military colonel, whose attempt to live a quiet life with his wife and daughter is constantly interrupted by bad news, which he faces with increasing despair. Also in this group is his brother, Artem (Gromov), a professor of scientific atheism, who articulates the Materialist refutation of God and the soul with the ease of any propagandist taught to parrot the party line. And, there is Anzhelika (Agniia Kuznetsova), the wide-eyed, guileless daughter of the local Communist boss, whose childish belief in her father's authority metaphorically suggests her naïve confidence in the Soviet Union. On the other side of the spectrum are two men with varying levels of disdain for the Soviet Union: Aleksei (Aleksei Serebriakov), a former prisoner, who now oversees a small bootlegging operation and the young Valerii (Leonid Bichevin), one of Aleksei's customers, who manipulates the system to make money. Finally, there is also a representative of the state: Zhurov (Aleksei Poluian), a psychotic policeman who abuses his authority in the most inhumane ways imaginable.

Balabanov insists on relentless and visually assaulting depictions of inhumanity in order to combat what he identifies as contemporary Russia's misguided nostalgia for life under the Soviet regime. Troubled by the amnesia of the Putin era, Balabanov works hard in this film to eradicate any sentimental recollections one might have of late Stagnation. In addition to the portrayal of rampant alcoholism, tyrannical power, and the general state of ruin, the film also uses its soundtrack to undermine happy memories. Featuring such bands as DK and Kino, the film's music conjures good times. However, the combination of lyrical and pop tunes of that era with visual depictions of cruel realities is discomforting. This odd juxtaposition encourages the viewer to be disturbed by his own behavior as he taps his foot to a catchy pop tune while watching truly disturbing events unfold. Much more than just an indictment of the Soviet Union, Cargo 200 also takes aim at those—in the film and in its audience—who, too fearful to get involved, allow the unspeakable to happen again and again.

Dawn Seckler

Aleksei Balabanov

Aleksei Oktiabrinovich Balabanov was born in Sverdlovsk on 25 February 1959. He made his directorial debut in 1989 with the documentary Nastia and Egor. His first feature film, Happy Days, was released in 1991 and won instant fame across Europe. Since then he has directed nine films that have made it to the big screen (one project, The American [2004], was aborted). Balabanov is championed as one of Russia's best contemporary directors whose films range from blockbuster hits to arthouse sensations. Balabanov presently works at STW Film Company in St. Petersburg, which he helped found in1994 with producer Sergei Sel'ianov.

Filmography

1989 Nastia and Egor (documentary)
1991 Happy Days
1994 Castle
1995 Trofim from The Arrival of a Train
1997 Brother
1998 Of Freaks and Men
2000 Brother 2 Link 1 | Link 2
2002 War Link 1 | Link 2
2002 River Link 1 | Link 2
2005 Dead Man's Bluff Link 1 | Link 2
2006 It Doesn't Hurt Link 1 | Link 2
2007 Cargo 200

 
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