The bleakest of black comedies, the explosive Cabaret Balkan captures the contained desperation of life during wartime. The film’s original title, The Powder Keg, better describes the precise tone established by co-writer/director Goran Paskaljevic, where a flicker of anger can ignite a firestorm.

Adapted from Dejan Dukovski’s play, Cabaret Balkan is an episodic tale which captures the siege mentality of Belgrade during a specific period of time: After Serbia went to war with the other countries emerging from the former Yugoslavia, but before NATO began bombing the city.

The film interweaves the stories of numerous characters, most of whom are just trying to lead a relatively normal life. But as Paskaljevic soon makes clear, this is an impossibility when the moral underpinnings of a society have rotted away. So, during one night in Belgrade, everyday frustrations slide inexorably into violence as powder keg after powder keg is lit.

"Goddamn lousy country," says an all-knowing cab driver (Nebojsa Glogovac) to his mysterious fare, Michael (Miki Manojlovic); "everyone with brains has left, and you’re coming back?"

Michael, who has successfully established a new life in the West, returns for grandly romantic reasons. But his friend Boris (Nikola Ristanovski), a sardonic cabaret performer whose monologues frame the film, warns him that the "home" of his imagination no longer exists.

Instead, there’s a Belgrade where a fender bender committed by a careless young man prompts a vendetta; a boxing match between lifelong friends turns into a pitched battle of psychological one-upmanship; a charismatic thug, railing against poor service, hijacks a tram and takes the passengers onboard hostage; and a teenage Bosnian refugee working in the black market is confronted by the inherent sadism of his patron. Here, the encounters between people can turn on a dime, from seemingly friendly conversations to shockingly casual brutality to sudden death.

With Cabaret Balkan, Goran Paskaljevic has evoked brilliantly a particular sensibility. His Belgrade is a place of immense sadness and fatalism tempered by resilience and defiant humor, where the tears of laughter and sorrow are inseparable.

Serena Donadoni writes about film for the Metro Times. E-mail her at [email protected].

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