by Ben Arzate
“Carga” (Breaking Glass Pictures; directed by Bruno Gascon)
In the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union, Viktoriya, a young Russian woman, hitches a ride with a Portuguese truck driver named Antonio to find a better life in another country. However, she finds that she’s been tricked by him and falls victim to a human trafficking network run by the brutal Russian mafioso Viktor. As Viktoriya struggles to survive and escape, Antonio bears the heavy guilt of his work and seeks to get out while Viktor finds that many cracks are forming in his operation.
Carga is the debut feature-length film by Portuguese director Bruno Gascon. He chose a heavy subject matter for his debut and, for the most part, handles it well. The story is told as a thriller, albeit an incredibly dark and often unpleasant one. I went in a little hesitant as the packaging around it, such as the incredibly heavy-handed tagline “It Could Be You,” suggested it was going to be a preachy morality tale. However, while it doesn’t shirk from showing the horrors of human trafficking, it avoids preaching, focusing on the characters and the story.
Antonio, the truck driver, is racked with guilt at delivering people into the hands of Viktor’s operation, but finds himself unable to leave under the threat of his family being murdered. This, likewise, is how Viktor forces the women enslaved in his ring to cooperate, doing his best to present his organization as an omnipresent threat. We soon find out he’s no super villain, however, when the police begin moving in on him and one his employees, who he believed to be his most loyal, decides to take Viktoriya and run after witnessing her suffer a particularly brutal assault.
The performances here are great all around. Michalina Olszanska as Viktoriya does an excellent job of portraying the trauma of what she goes through and yet maintaining determination to survive in a very believable way. There are many quiet and low-key scenes carried excellently by the actors and the cinematography. The most violent and disturbing scenes are rarely explicit yet hit with a hard punch. It’s clear Gascon has a lot of talent as a director.
I did find some problems with the story. While the villain Viktor and Antonio have time dedicated to their backgrounds, we learn almost nothing about Vikoriya. The only mention of where she came from and why she left is in a piece of text at the beginning. We do find out she has a family, but we learn nothing about them. I’m avoiding spoiling it here, but the conclusion of her story also relies on a contrived coincidence that was difficult to buy.
The American DVD release also leaves something to be desired. The film is subtitled in English in the parts where the dialogue is in Portuguese or Russian, and there are parts where the subtitles are difficult to read because they blend in with the picture (though that may be due to my TV) and there are misspellings and bad grammar littered throughout.
The extras include a making of featurette and one of Gascon’s short films Vazio. Vazio, translated to Emptiness in English, is about a man coping with losing his job and the respect of his family. He snaps and murders his family, his ex-boss, and commits suicide by jumping off a roof. The cinematography and acting are well done, but the film is a bit too on the nose. It was clearly written by someone with a lot of anger but no real direction to aim it in.
Despite some of its flaws, Carga is an intense and well-crafted film. It handles its heavy subject matter very well and shows Gascon as a director with a lot of potential. Because of the problems with the DVD’s subtitles, it may be better to stream this one, but it’s worth watching.