Friday, April 10, 2009

Cargo of Doom

By David Luhrssen
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A Russian film set in a time of living memory, Cargo 200 takes place in 1984, when the entire USSR resembled the shabby squalor of the worst districts of Detroit. Director Alexy Balabanov titled his film from the Soviet code name for the coffins of dead solders shipped home from Afghanistan, a war the Soviet Union could never win. Cargo 200 will be released April 28 on DVD.

If Cargo 200 has a protagonist, itís the hapless Artyom, director of the Faculty of Scientific Atheism at Leningrad University. Dweeby and succumbing to a weary middle age, heís uncomfortable with the tectonic rumbles he senses below his feet. Artyom complains that his students spend more time ďhanging outĒ and listening to rock music than anything else. ďSomethingís gone and I donít understand whatís coming,Ē the professor complains to his brother, a colonel in the Red Army. The anthems and slogans all have a tinny ring.

During a night journey to visit his mother in a nearby industrial city, Artyomís rattletrap car sputters to a halt on a stretch of forest road. Walking under a full moon to the nearest farm, he encounters a strange peasant family with a Vietnamese hired hand and an odd, taciturn dinner guest who turns out to be the police chief. Over the rude wooden kitchen table and blinding doses of vodka, the family head and the professor debate the existence of God. Artyom maintains that matter produces consciousness, the universe is merely matter in motion and morality is a function of economics. The peasant will have none of this, mocking his guest for upholding a Communist morality that has murdered millions. ďYou donít frighten me with your smart words,Ē the peasant adds, a line that could have come from similar characters in the Southern gothic fiction of Flannery OíConnor.

And then Cargo 200 turns incredibly dark and bizarre, a grim fairytale with a touch of Texas ChainsawMassacre and even an echo of John Waters. The film has an affinity with those old late-night drive-in. sub-Hollywood flicks so beloved by Quentin Tarantino, including the inspired amateurism of the cast, simple and usually real-life settings deployed for atmospheric effect and a jagged structure sewn together like Frankensteinís monster.

Artyom is a compromised careerist and the peasant is a little mad, but pure evil shows its face in the form of the police chief, a cold-eyed killer and impotent sex maniac. He is the demon embodiment of arbitrary brutality and violence in a totalitarian state. And as he goes about his depraved way, the coffins from Afghanistan continue to pile up at the airport. The state he serves is a murderer and he is its warped product.

Given Cargo 200ís abrupt structure, itís no surprise that Artyom disappears for much of the movie and plays no role in most of the events. He becomes a protagonist in the classic sense, however. His journey through the dark night leads him in the end to reconsider everything he once believed.

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