Judge Joel Pearce thinks corpses make the worst cargo.
A thriller in a land on the verge of collapse.
Cargo 200 is one of those films that's impressive in that it got made at all—a decade ago Russia would never have allowed a film this critical of the Soviet government to be released. Unfortunately, it's also truly unpleasant to watch, forcing it into a rather small audience. For a certain few, though, it offers a very grimy window into a challenging moment of political history.
Facts of the Case
After a night of heavy drinking, a young man named Valera (Leonid Bichevin) passes out in a small distillery, leaving his fiancée's friend Angelica (Agniya Kuznetsova) at the mercy of the rough owners. When a servant at the distillery is murdered and Angelica is kidnapped, it sets into motion a rough, ugly series of events that we can only wish wasn't based on a true story.
Early in the film, there is an argument between a God-fearing lower class distiller and a professor of scientific atheism. They snipe cruelly at each others' positions, delivering classic philosophical arguments about morality and metaphysics. In this particular case, it doesn't matter who is right. The corruption of the Soviet society is portrayed as so pervasive that there is no morality left. In this world, it doesn't matter if there is a God, because the believers are as cruel as the atheists.
Cargo 200 is more morally disturbing than it is in terms of its content. It has some cruel and disgusting moments, to be certain, but it's the nihilism at the core of the film that leaves a bad taste in the mouth. The characters are strangely interlocked—almost unbelievably so—but that's simply another way for director Alexey Balabanov (Brother) to drive his main point home. Every character in the film is complicit in Angelica's kidnapping, either through moral corruption or moral weakness.
The title of the film refers to military corpses who return from the war in Afghanistan, but none of the film takes place there. Instead, we are left thinking about these dead young men, fighting and dying for a place they should be ashamed of. Many critics have seen Cargo 200 as a response to recent portrayals of nostalgia for the Soviet era, and in a lot of ways it's hard to see the film working on any other level.
Despite some strong performances, I find myself hesitant to recommend Cargo 200 to anyone that strongly. It's an ugly little film, and while a number of people describe it as a black comedy, I feel obligated to point out that coincidence and irony does not necessarily indicate the presence of comedy. I appreciate what Balabanov has to say here, but only those with some sort of emotional ties to Soviet Russia should put themselves through this grueling cinematic experience. Even horror buffs who crave torture porn will be put off by Cargo 200, since it is an art film at heart, and lacks the thrills of similar films like High Tension and Calvaire. This film has garnered significant critical praise, but I don't see it finding an audience on this continent.
The DVD is as ugly as the film itself. The image has been poorly mastered, although it comes in anamorphic format. The picture quality is flat and cold, with many details lost in shadow, some nasty interlacing artifacts, and an overall soft look. The sound is delivered in stereo, and makes no attempt to wow us in any way. There are no special features at all.
While Cargo 200 remains a compelling study of a horrifying era in Russian history, it has been marketed very poorly for North American audiences. It's sold as a stomach-churning arthouse thriller, but fans of that brand of entertainment (if it should be called that) will fall asleep by the time anything grisly happens on-screen. Most film buffs on the lookout for an intelligent critique of 1984 Soviet Russia will be turned off by the nihilism that saturates the second half of the film. Social commentary is disregarded in a nonsensical retread of pessimistic existentialism, which many will find as bewildering as it is disturbing. If you still want to check it out after all that is said, you will probably enjoy it more than I did. For everyone else, this is a disc worth passing up.
Guilty of torturing the audience without good enough reason, Cargo 200
is sentenced to ten years of hard labor.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Disinformation Company
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