WHAT would happen if the late founder of former Yugoslavia, Marshal Tito, reappeared on a Belgrade sidewalk wanting to know why his multiethnic creation had suffered such a bloody demise?
Zelimir Zilnik, a maverick film director and former political dissident, decided to find out.
He dressed up an outstanding impersonator as the dead communist dictator - with uniform, cape-like overcoat, and a near-perfect mimic of Tito's rural dialect - strolled him through his former capital, and captured what transpired on camera.
The result is ``Marshal Tito Among the Serbs for a Second Time Around,'' a bittersweet film that evokes Adam's apple-swelling memories of former Yugoslavia's ordered, but peaceful, years of ``brotherhood and unity'' and illusory socialist idyll.
The 40-minute film, which premiered last Friday, succeeds because of the extraordinarily genuine way in which ordinary folk react to the sharp-witted Tito look-alike, actor Micko Ljubicic.
They stop and crowd him on street corners, their eyes still reflecting traces of reverence. But more than that, they converse with him as if he truly is the resurrected leader who died on May 5, 1980, after 45 years in power.
One man says: ``You know, Comrade Tito, you're a Croat, and I'm a Serb. But I respect you more than anything.''
A woman admits: ``I cried when you died. Then, I regretted it. But if you were alive today, I would vote for you.''
At Belgrade's train station, a gypsy accordion player wails the old communist party ode: ``Comrade Tito, we promise we will never stray from your path.''
But some decry Tito's politics
Not everyone is nice. Some tell Tito what they think of him. ``You betrayed the Soviet Union in 1948,'' an elderly pensioner scolds Tito in Kalimegdan Park. ``This is why we have this today.''
But for the most part, the responses are like those of the man who, decrying war-fed economic suffering, says: ``I built a house when Tito was alive. Now I couldn't even build a pig shed.''
Mr. Zilnik was astonished at what he encountered.
``Of course, nobody really thought Tito was alive. But you could see and feel that they felt some warmth in their hearts, like they were face-to-face with a piece of the past,'' Zilnik said in an interview last week.
``I was surprised there was a great readiness to look inside their souls,'' the director says, who was himself tried for treason and acquitted in 1970 after Tito adjudged his first film as political heresy.
Zilnik agrees that he could not have produced his latest work at an earlier time, explaining: ``Ten years ago, Tito would have just been applauded. A year ago, he would have been stoned.''
Heirs attacked Tito as `criminal'
That is because of the way Tito's heirs attacked his memory and his legacy as they whipped up the ethnic hatreds they used to safeguard their political powers following communism's collapse.
To supplant his cult with their own, the protagonists of the Yugoslav tragedy employed crude media campaigns to persuade their people that Tito was a ``criminal'' and ``traitor'' who forced their respective ethnic groups to live in his ``artificial'' federation.
``The people who had cleaned his boots were actually the first to spread hate against him,'' Zilnik says, referring to the leaders of the former republics. ``They implanted fear in people until people stretched out their hands, and they put weapons in them.
``They sponsored violence and savagery, and they wanted to wash their own pasts as Tito's slaves in the blood of ordinary people,'' he adds as he sips mineral water.
As Tito's heirs seek a way out of the maelstrom they ignited, a sort of ``Yugo-nostalgia'' is growing in the former republics among war-weary, destitute people who realize that as bad as things may have been, they were never as awful as they are now.
``After this dirty and bloody experience, now there is a mood to look in the mirror. So, I had a feeling that people would start a dialogue even with the ghost of Tito,'' Zilnik says.
That yearning seems to have sharpened after Bosnia's Muslims and Croats agreed in January to stop fighting and forge a federation that may eventually reconnect to neighboring Croatia.
Recent weeks have seen other manifestations of ``Yugo-nostalgia.'' They include the huge popularity in Serbia of Croatian rock songs and visits by journalists and intellectuals to rival republics. Political leaders have added to the phenomenon with their apparent eagerness for peace. Zilnik agrees this mood is keenly evident in his movie.
Film accuses present leaders
But he considers most significant a realization by many of those who spoke to Tito that the dead dictator is not to blame for their tragedy, as official media asserts, but the men who claimed his inheritance.
``The traitors that were around you made this happen,'' says a man in a scene that follows shots of the carnage in Bosnia. ``They did what was good for themselves, not what was good for the people. That's why Yugoslavia fell apart.''
``Most people felt they had been betrayed by the new leaders,'' Zilnik explains. ``Tito's government, although it was a dictatorship, was successful. People lived in peace, and the standard was improving. We communicated with the world.''
That theme is set in the opening exchange between Tito and the chauffeur who ferries him into downtown Belgrade from the suburban tomb in which he was buried.
Tito asks if he is to blame for the more than 300,000 dead, 4 million homeless, and the destruction of what was the most affluent living standard in the former communist world. ``They think it is your fault because your bureaucracy remained here,'' the chauffeur replies. ``First they got rid of `brotherhood and unity,' and then they destroyed everything else.''
He continues: ``I think you made one mistake. Are you going back up? If so, take all those you left behind with you.''
``All the people?'' Tito asks.
``No,'' the driver says. ``All the rulers. And don't let them return.''
* This story was filed by Mr. Landay last week. Since that time, his press credentials have been revoked by the Yugoslav Ministry of Information in Belgrade. The Monitor has protested this action.