Just when it seems that Cargo 200 can't get any more gruesome, the end credits roll, revealing that the movie is based on true events. Set in 1984 in a provincial Russian town just before the collapse of the Soviet Union, the film offers a microcosmic glance at a tumultuous time in Russian history. Directed by Alexey Balabanov, Cargo 200 opens with a discussion between two brothers, Mikhail, a Soviet army colonel, and Artyom, a professor at the University of Leningrad. The brothers present a broad perspective on life within the Soviet Union at the time, as the colonel spends much of his day arranging for dead soldiers to be transported back to Russia from Afghanistan, while the professor worries about his son's social life and the future of Communist theory.
The brothers become unknowingly involved in a murder-kidnapping after Artyom's car breaks down and he seeks help at a nearby farmhouse. Later that evening, Valery, the boyfriend of Mikhail's daughter, stops by the same house to pick up home-distilled vodka but passes out from drinking too much, leaving Angelica, the girl he has brought with him, to fend for herself. Angelica, the daughter of a government official, is raped and then kidnapped to cover up for a murder. As she grows thin and sick while handcuffed to a bed, presumably being repeatedly raped by her kidnapper, the film follows the two brothers and Alexey, the owner of the farmhouse, who has been unjustly accused of murder, as they reel from the unexpected chaos that has infected their lives.
"Cargo 200" is the term for the dead bodies of Russian soldiers shipped back from the war in Afghanistan. The movie is set against the harsh reality that, as Russia's governmental leaders struggled for political power, the country's youth were being killed in droves at war, making the film surprisingly relevant to modern U.S. history. Although it follows a thriller's plot, Cargo 200 is fueled by discussions about religion, atheism, war, and academia, highlighting the corruption, religious and social tension, and intergenerational conflict gripping the USSR as it suffered from political overthrow.
Balabanov, who has directed a wide spectrum of films, from comedies to melodramas, allows a dialogue about religion to play out from the movie's beginning to end, further bolstering the timeliness of this period piece. When Mikhail first stops at the farmhouse, he engages in a heated debate about religion with Alexey while he is waiting for his car to be fixed. Alexey confesses to murdering a man when he was a child so that someone else wouldn't be wrongly accused. Towards the end of the film, after Mikhail meets with Alexey's wife and finds that his new friend has been charged with a murder that he did not commit, we find the God-fearing Alexey in jail, while the atheist Mikhail flees to a church.
Balabanov has said that his film is about love, and though that notion is difficult to reconcile since each frame of the film reveals one horror after another, Cargo 200 nonetheless feels like a homage to Balabanov's childhood. Although its content will prohibit it from being shown in most mainstream cinemas, the movie offers an important perspective on a time period that changed the world. As someone who was in the throes of youth in 1984, Balabanov is able to isolate the political turmoil from the general social upheaval. The film is brutal, chilling, and truly unpleasant to watch, yet its execution is careful and as tasteful as it can be. While it will certainly be more meaningful to those familiar with Russian history, it is accessible even to those with limited knowledge of the time, and its imagery will undoubtedly linger with you.