INITIALLY SCHEDULED FOR SPRING, THE RELEASE of Serbian director Goran Paskaljevic's Cabaret Balkan was postponed when NATO began its air campaign over Kosovo and Yugoslavia. Produced in 1997 but set in 1995, soon after the official end of the civil war in Bosnia-Herzegovina, the ensemble film unfolds over the course of one long, dark night on the streets of Belgrade. Just how a film that takes place in a city being actively bombed by the American military would have been received in the States is anybody's guess. Clearly its distributor, Paramount Classics, wasn't taking any chances.

One thing, however, is certain. As an outspoken opponent of Slobodan Milosevic's regime, Paskaljevic has done more than simply shake an angry fist at war, nationalism and ethnic terror. With a tone that fluidly shifts through a challenging range of responses to personal and institutional violence, the angle and intensity of Paskaljevic's daring vision takes us deep into the soul of a society imploding all on its own. Never less than riveting — even when it turns ferociously ugly — the film is marked by the urgency of a director who seems to know he's working between wars. Indeed, the film's original title — changed for the U.S. release — was The Powder Keg.

Adapted from a work by Macedonian playwright Dejan Dukovski, Cabaret Balkan takes its current name from the café in which the film opens and closes. As the camera zeroes in on the café's neon-lit stage, we see — in a nod to Bob Fosse's Cabaret — a master of ceremonies in gaudy vampire drag addressing an unseen audience. “You think I'm funny?” he asks with a droll smirk. “That's okay, because tonight I'm going to fuck with you.” As a summation of Paskaljevic's general approach, the line couldn't be more succinct.

In introducing the dozen or so lives whose overlapping trajectories will form his sprawling yet strangely claustrophobic portrait, the director takes up one story, sets it in motion, then takes up another. With a masterful economy of framing and dialogue backed by a stellar cast, he manages to imbue each character — a cab driver, a young woman who's lost her lover, a war profiteer — with an essential humanity, whether wounded, innocent or utterly perverted. Griping and complaints are in the air, mostly directed at the weary, ravaged state of “this lousy country.” From exhaustion, frustration and just a hint of returning normalcy, Paskaljevic distills a fragile calm.

When lives start crossing and lines start getting crossed, however, even the smallest of slights or injuries are enough to trigger sudden outbursts of anger, assault and murder. Early on, a minor fender-bender results in a ruthless personal vendetta, while later a man stabs his lifelong best friend with a broken bottle after they exchange a few shattering confessions. As one life detonates, it sends others hurtling into the darkness like so much human shrapnel, to wreak havoc in still more. In some instances, Paskaljevic pulls the rug out from under us so fast, plunging us into the most nerve-rackingly tense and threatening situations, that there's barely enough time to catch our breath, let alone figure out how we or the characters got there.

Throughout this night of mayhem, Paskaljevic fine-tunes each story to a different emotional pitch. There's more than a little dark humor involved when an estranged husband fakes a suicide to win back his wife, only to be permanently laid out by her new lover. Another suicide, this one for real, produces the most devastating and heart-wrenching of scenes. After being hit with the tragic, the absurd, the realistic, the comic . . . it's finally hard to know how to react to any of it. Herein, it seems, lies the method behind the madness.

At every turn, Paskaljevic's target is less a political regime that sustains itself by exploiting centuries of hate — though Milosevic is clearly indicted again and again — than a certain ingrained fatalism. Paskaljevic's response to a society that has lost its moral compass — indeed, any sense of proportion or restraint, guilt or innocence — is to throw that loss back in its face to show it the price that's been paid. Cabaret Balkan, while often difficult to take, acts like a jump-start to the conscience. In this light, the film's closing line, a toast delivered by the café's shabby Dracula provocateur, is perhaps more hopeful than it seems: “To your health.”

CABARET BALKAN | Directed by GORAN PASKALJEVIC | Written by DEJAN DUKOVSKI and PASKALJEVIC, with the collaboration of FILIP DAVID and ZORAN ANDRIC | Produced by ANTOINE de CLERMONT-TONNERRE and PASKALJEVIC | Released by Paramount Classics | At Laemmle's Music Hall, Laemmle's Colorado and U.A. Warner Center

The Art of War

AT LAST YEAR'S SARAJEVO FILM FESTIVAL, director Gorcin Stojanovic returned from Belgrade to the city of his birth with his second feature, The Hornet, a solid cop thriller that turns on the story of two star-crossed lovers, an Albanian man and a Serbian woman. Stojanovic hoped it would be received as a simple genre film. “The Hornet is not a film about the situation in Kosovo,” he wrote in the festival's program notes. The local press saw it differently, roasting the Bosnian Serb director for depicting Albanian Kosovars as Muslim fanatics, terrorists and drug dealers.

Balkan filmmakers these days must be acutely sensitive to how their works may be perceived at home and abroad — someone is always asking, “What side are you on?” Then again, that question has been an issue through 50 years of communism and 10 years of war.

The first Serbian talkie was shot during the Nazi occupation of Belgrade in 1942. To be frank, it's no Open City. Innocence Unprotected was directed by Dragoljub Aleksic, a Yugoslavian daredevil who built a naive melodrama about a girl and her strongman sweetheart around footage of his own high-wire and aerial stunts, shot before the war. After Marshal Josip Tito and the Communist Party came to power, Aleksic was brought up on and eventually cleared of charges that he had collaborated with the Nazis.

In his loving but critically savvy documentary, also titled Innocence Unprotected (1968), Dusan Makavejev weaves together scenes from Aleksic's movie, interviews with surviving cast members, and footage from the era's news and propaganda films. The result is a brilliant reminder that the meanings of images are always up for grabs, as Makavejev looks at the ways in which daredevils, fascists and communists all exploit the body beautiful.

Made in the era of openness that came with Tito's death in 1980, Emir Kusturica's When Father Was Away on Business (1985) and Goran Markovic's Tito and Me (1992) are, each in its own way, about love, loyalty and life under the Communist leader. In neither of these films are there signs of the deeply rooted ethnic and political tensions that exploded in the early '90s, although perhaps they left their mark in Markovic's sense of nostalgia. With the release of his epic, absurdist satire Underground (1995), however, Kusturica ran into those tensions head-on. This story of a comic love triangle set against Yugoslavia's ever-darkening postwar history won the director both his second Palme d'Or at Cannes (his first was for Father) and censure for his failure to condemn Serbia's role in civil-war atrocities. Kusturica vowed never to make another film (his latest, Black Cat, White Cat, opens next month).

Similarly, Serbian director Srdan Dragojevic's Pretty Village, Pretty Flame (1996), a searing portrait of two lifelong friends who end up on opposite sides of the conflict, was hailed as a Kubrickian anti-war statement by many international critics, while in Bosnia-Herzegovina it was considered little more than pro-Serb agitprop.

A few days after The Hornet screened in Sarajevo, Dragojevic's The Wounds was shown amid tight security. But with Dragojevic turning his savage eye toward Belgrade's social meltdown under Slobodan Milosevic's nationalist policies through the story of two Serb teenagers who dream of becoming gangsters, The Wounds proved a hit. Some local viewers even saw it as an apology for Pretty Village, Pretty Flame, a sign that Dragojevic had learned a valuable lesson.

All of these films, with the exception of The Hornet and The Wounds, are available on video.

Advertising disclosure: We may receive compensation for some of the links in our stories. Thank you for supporting LA Weekly and our advertisers.