CARGA **** Portugal 2018 Dir: Bruno Gascon. 113 mins
Writer-director Bruno Gascon’s feature debut begins and ends with text reminders that CARGA tells an all too real tale – specifically of the enduring problem of sex trafficking in Portugal in the context of economic crisis, poverty and post-USSR migration. Against this backdrop, a young woman (Michalina Olszanska) is transported across the border by an ageing truck driver (Vitor Norte), delivering her to the human trafficking ring overseen by Dmitry Bogomolov, whose younger sister (also played by Olszanska) helps with the operation. Stripped of her identification and shut in a cell, our protagonist waits to be sold alongside an interchangeable group of other unfortunate young women. If early 21st century U.S. horror made us numb to grungily-lit torture chambers and the prolonged suffering of attractive (typically white) American men and women in some foreign clime, CARGA doesn’t wallow in its horrors but packs an immense punch by conveying the omnipresent threat of violence and a pervasive sense of hopelessness. The on-screen violence is brief, shocking and callous, with a gruelling, non-exploitative rape scene, but the intensity stems largely from being immersed in a microcosm of the wider problem as we watch these women objectified, stripped physically and mentally of their humanity for the sake of profit. The film exists in a world where the most comforting thing anyone can find to say is “Sometimes their dicks are smaller than a fucking tampon”. One sequence is literally an extended howl of despair as we realise what is at stake for Norte’s character: his complicity in these horrific events balanced by the dire threat posed to his own wife and granddaughter if he breaks free. Olszanska’s brave, riveting performances galvanise this sombre picture, in which even the faintest flicker of hope at the end is extinguished by the reminder that “It could be you”.
Review by Steven West