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Emir Kusturica's Underground -- 50 years of Yugoslav history in 167 minutes -- begins with an hourlong Second World War (antic Serb heroes outfox the Nazis), continues with an hour or so devoted to life in the Tito era (cleverly allegorized as being buried alive), and concludes with the civil wars and massacres of the 1990s (a half-hour cry of pain). The last part got Kusturica into trouble, preventing this winner of the 1995 Palme d'Or at Cannes from being widely seen in the United States until now. The filmmaker's cry of pain was deemed insufficiently anti-Serb by French intellectuals, the most prominent of whom, Alain Finkielkraut, didn't bother to see the film before condemning it. I may be missing subtle cues known only to Bosnians, but to this distant observer Kusturica seems to be condemning violence on all sides as he mourns the lost unity of his former home. His utopian finale -- urging viewers to "forgive the unforgivable" -- may be incredibly naive, but naive in the tradition of Chaplin's final speech in The Great Dictator rather than perniciously delusional. If it is "driveling and lying Serbian propaganda" (Finkielkraut) it comes disguised as an exploding cigar.

A goose pecks a tiger, the tiger eats the goose. Viewed strictly as a film, Underground is an astonishing, unmissable experience. Its opening images of shadows on a wall foretell the entire film's phantasmal allegory -- Yugoslavia as Plato's Cave. Images of surrealist horror, like wild animals roaming the streets of Belgrade after the Nazis bomb its zoo, are juxtaposed with brilliantly timed and mimed comedy as two slapstuck friends pursue the Nazis and collaborating actress Natalija (rubber doll Mirjana Jokovic). The imagic obsessions of Marko the politician (thinly mustachioed Miki Manojlovic), the shrewder of the two friends, is foreshadowed by an early scene of him peering at a whore in a mirror; throughout the film he manipulates people as well as images, not least of all his pal Blacky (brush-mustachioed Lazar Ristovski), whose macho pride is easily bent to Marko's will. Natalija, the object of both men's desires, correctly tells them, "The two of you could make one good man," although she herself is as guilty as anyone as she participates in the outrageous swindle at the heart of the film. A wild, exhausting party, with plenty of guilt to go around, makes up most of the film's second part and may try some viewers' patience, although there are many astonishing images still to come: drowned souls swimming underwater, a network of tunnels connecting all the cities of Europe, an identityless man aloft in a tree weeping for his lost monkey. Whatever it is politically, Underground is superb cinema, pushed along in 4/4 time by a loping brass band through the nightmare of history that is the 20th century.

-- Gregg Rickman

Underground screens Friday through Thursday, March 13-19, daily at 1, 4:30, and 8 p.m. at the Castro, 429 Castro (at Market). Tickets are $6; call 621-6120.

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