Two Yugoslav films show life and art go on amid hardships

Yugoslavia has a long history of substantial filmmaking, ranging from the movies of world-class auteurs Emir Kusturica and Dusan Makavejev to the work of the Zagreb Animation Studio, which set an international standard for cartooning. Now that the once-unified nation has broken apart, many of its screen artists continue to labor hard and creatively despite the hardships they often face.

The vicissitudes of Kusturica's career have led him far from his native Bosnia - as the title of his "Arizona Dream," starring Johnny Depp and Jerry Lewis, attests - but he has always retained a keen interest in his roots and in the Gypsy culture that flourishes there. Gypsies are the chief inhabitants of his best movie, "Time of the Gypsies," and they make an aggressive comeback in Black Cat, White Cat, his first release since the grandiose "Underground" won the top prize at the Cannes filmfest four years ago.

The complicated web of relationships at the heart of "Black Cat, White Cat" is woven around a Gypsy community that dwells alongside the Danube River, better known for inspiring graceful Strauss waltzes than for the shenanigans that go on in this movie.

The plot involves a bungled train robbery, an arranged marriage, and sundry double-crosses and triple-crosses spanning at least three generations. Most of the characters are rogues and rascals, but enough of them have decent spirits to make them mildly interesting company for the length of a feature film.

As in Kusturica's other recent work, the story is stronger on sound and fury than clarity and coherence. It provides a glimpse of lives and loves we don't often see at the movies, though, and proves that his country's hard times haven't dimmed his cinematic zest.

The Wounds was written and directed by Srdjan Dragojevic, who hails from Belgrade, where this movie set box-office records despite a ban on publicity issued by the Serbian government, which was displeased by its highly critical content.

Like the somewhat similar "Cabaret Balkan," which opened recently in American theaters, "The Wounds" focuses less on political or governmental issues than on the personal failings and everyday miseries that affect ordinary people who are simply trying to live their lives despite the chaos that surrounds them.

Dragojevic aims tragicomic barbs at everything from teenage violence to television trash. His message is as cynical as it is sardonic, but it etches a harrowing portrait of social dysfunction in a land that has been experiencing more than its share of sorrows.

*Neither film has been rated; both contain violence and vulgarity.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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