There must be something in the water in Eastern Europe because they have been cranking out some of the most confrontational films in the world for at least the last 40 years. The first major movement to get any kind of notice among cinephiles was the Czech New Wave back in the '60s, then there was the explicit aberrant sexuality of Yugoslavia's Dusan Makavajev in the '70s, the mid-2000's saw Hungary's attack on decency in György Pálfi's Taxidermia
, and in the last five years or so we've seen the rise of the Serbian underground in the aggressively nasty A Serbian Film
and The Life & Death of a Porno Gang
. Well, now we can add Croatia to that list with the latest film from Branko Schmidt, Vegetarian Cannibal
Now, before you gorehounds go hunting around the usual channels for bootlegs, I would like to assure that in spite of the promising title, the film is surprisingly light on gut munching. Instead we are treated to a little under 90 minutes of corruption, organized crime, dodgy medical treatment, sex, drugs, and yes, even a little rock 'n roll. While Vegetarian Cannibal
eschews the overt, aggressive violence of it's most recent predecessors from Serbia and Hungary, the concept is no less vile and the characters no less shady, only in this case, the villain, such as he is, is a man whom the entire world has to trust, a doctor.
Meet Dr. Danko Babic. An up and coming gynecologist with a taste for the finer things in life. Though he is among the most respected in his field, he still keeps friends in low places. Babic likes blow, he likes women, and most of all he likes money. When a local mob boss who is a friend of a friend makes Babic an offer he can't refuse to "take care of" his strippers and hookers, suddenly the good doctor finds himself stumbling into a world from which there is no safe escape.
Now an abortionist for the mob, Babic finds himself performing procedures of dubious necessity, and worse. Every time he tries to step away, the pile of money in front of him gets bigger. Eventually Babic's extracurricular activities begin to affect his day to day job, causing him to cut corners and make several mistakes for which he could face sanction, termination, or even time in jail. However, his sugar daddy has friends in high places, and for every favor Babic is done, one even more gruesome is expected in return, and boy, does it get nasty.
What I found most impressive about the film was its relative restraint. There are certainly opportunities in Vegetarian Cannibal
for exploitation, however, the director allows the audience's minds to make the biggest leaps. Out of all of the nasty things that happen in the film, only one finds its way on screen in any sort of explicit way, and even then it's done, dare I say, tastefully. The restraint shown by the story echoes the restraint shown by the doctor as he is nudged closer and closer to madness through the acts he is forced to commit.
What begins as mere greed becomes avarice in the face of ever increasing rewards for sinking to increasingly blacker depths. Babic has driven himself into a maelstrom from which he cannot be saved, and every move he makes puts one more nail in his coffin. Even as he is given a promotion to the director's position in his hospital, he turns his back on the first credo of medical professionals everywhere, "first, do no harm", in pursuit of the goal which he'll never reach.
More than crude and violent, Vegetarian Cannibal
is unsettling, which is a much harder trick to pull off. The performances are all solid and sleazy, and the film never hesitates to show the evil that men do in their souls, if not with their hands. As the final moments tick down, the film becomes unbearably tense as we, the audience, wonder if we're actually going to see what we think we are. I won't spoil the surprise, but it's probably worse than you think.