As the saying goes, the Balkans are the powder keg of the world. We may have learned that catch phrase in history class, but Paskaljevic (1992's Tango Argentino) wants us to experience it firsthand. His film (in Serbo-Croatian with English subtitles), which won the Critics' Prize at last year's Venice Film Festival, takes place in Belgrade on a single night in 1995 -- by no coincidence, the same day the Dayton peace agreement that settled the Bosnian civil war was signed. Paskaljevic uses an episodic structure, taking us from one group of aggressors and victims to the next. (The screenplay, by Macedonian playwright Dejan Dukovski, Paskaljevic, and others, is based on Dukovski's play Bure Baruta and structured after Arthur Schnitzler's 1900 stage play La Ronde, about immoral behavior.) In this way we see that -- presumably because of the war -- all antisocial inhibitions have been dissolved. Rape, torture, and humiliation are the methods by which people now interact with one another.
The problem is it's nearly impossible to put into context the horrific violence that's become an everyday occurrence for Yugoslavians; it simply doesn't make sense outside the world in which it exists. (The Powder Keg is Yugoslavia's selection for the 1998 Academy Award for Best Foreign Film.) Some of the episodes, however, are fascinating: A cab driver follows a limping man into a bar and elicits from him the story of how he was beaten with a crowbar by someone he couldn't see. Then the cab driver confesses that he broke the guy's bones in retaliation for a similarly savage beating the man had earlier given him. Then, incredibly, the cab driver offers his victim a ride home, and the man accepts it. Can we really understand a transaction such as this? Probably not, unless we've lived through something of the same magnitude.
For that reason sitting through The Powder Keg is like watching a movie about a dozen Travis Bickles, none of whom we get to know as well as we do the troubled protagonist of Martin Scorsese's 1976 Taxi Driver. Witnessing story after story in which people brutalize each other doesn't necessarily make us more sensitive or more knowledgeable. In a way the film's own structure undermines its power. Instead of leading us through the characters' lives, Paskaljevic just gives us glimpses of the circumstances that set off these people. After three or four violent vignettes, the movie begins to feel exploitative. One of the many tragedies of Yugoslavia is that the rest of the world can't fathom it. For all its good intentions, The Powder Keg never lets us get inside the nation and its seemingly endless difficulties.
-- Robin Dougherty (Sunday, February 28, 4:30 p.m.)