The Washington theatrical premiere of Andrzej Wajda's admirable "Man of Marble," probably the most revealing and significant European movie of recent years, has been repeatedly delayed, but the postponements couldn't have worked out better. "Man of Marble" finally arrives today at the Dupont Circle in the wake of triumphant news from the Cannes Film Festival, where Wajda's sequel, "Man of Iron," came fresh from the lab to win the grand prize.

Although shown unofficially, "Man of Marble" has been honored with a special award, the International Critics Prize, at the 1977 Cannes Festival.Even before the emergence of Poland's Solidarity movement underlined the film's contemporary political importance, "Man of Marble" was attended by a provocative reputation, derived from rumors of censorship that had left the movie with an unresolved, puzzling denouement.

Now Wadja himself and these two movies are intimately identified with Solidarity. It's virtually impossible to avoid perceiving "Man of Marble," an enormous popular success in Poland, as a subtly prophetic picture, a work of popular art that helped clarify and perhaps encourage a climate of opinion leading to the realization of a mass reform movement.

A movie can be both enhanced and distorted by playing a significant role in the history of its times. "Man of Marble" is uniquely interesting because it matters in a way that few movies ever do. Nevertheless, even without Solidarity it would have remained an eye-opener, especially for audiences in capitalist societies who rarely get such a witty, comprehensive look at the evolution of institutionalized hypocrisy and corruption within a communist society.

"Man of Marble" borrows its structure from "Citizen Kane." It's a cinematic mystery story in which fragments of documentation and reminiscence are recovered in an effort to reconstruct an elusive, ambiguous, yet representative career. Here it's the strange career of a disillusioned Polish proletarian. Mateusz Birkut, promoted by the state as a symbol of working class energy and virtue in the postwar years, only to fall out of political favor and eventually out of sight.

The mild-mannered researcher from "News on the March" in "Citizen Kane" gives way to the high-strung, abrasive young protagonist of "Man of Marble" -- an impetuous, aspiring filmmaker, Agnieszka, played by Krystyna Janda. While preparing a documentary on the Stakhanovite movement, the government's attempt to spur postwar reconstruction by idealizing exceptional manual laborers, she becomes obsessed with the rise, fall and disappearance of Birkut. Her curiosity is aroused principally by documentary relics of the postwar period -- newsreels and two propaganda shorts, "The Birth of a City" and "Architects of Our Happiness," faked with deadpan satiric authority by Wajda, who did indeed work on similar projects when he was a film student and indulges the private joke of listing himself as the assistant director of "Architects of Our Happiness."

It was "Architects of Our Happiness," a communist equivalent of "The March of Time" at its most fatuous and jingoistic, that created the legend of Birkut, the peasant-turned-bricklayer who sets a shining example for the nation by smashing records for productivity while helping build a new industrial city. After his recordbreaking feat, supervising a shift in which more than 30,000 bricks are set in place by a four-man team, Birkut goes on touring exhibitions to demonstrate bricklaying, becomes a delegate to the Communist Party congress, marries a young gymnastic star and even strikes an absurdly heroic pose, echoing the ancient Greeks, for a commemorative marble statue.

Then, inexplicable disgrace and oblivion. Inspired by the inconclusive film documentation, Agnieszka attempts to find out what became of Birkut. She locates the marble statue, tucked away in a storage room of the Ministry of Culture, and photographs it on the sly. She tracks down several people who knew her subject and pumps them for information.

As the pieces of the puzzle accumulate, it becomes apparent that Birkut, portrayed with disarming, guileless sincerity by Jerzy Radziwilowicz, was a victim of his own naivete. "Do you want to be the last one around to get wise?" he's asked by one well-meaning acquaintance, and it's the crucial ironic question of the story. The funny thing is, Birkut actually believed in the myth that was created around him. He is the last one to get wise, to realize that he's been exploited by a system which really places a premium on conformity and accommodation rather than heroism. He's a dope, and yet it's his dumb, incorrigible integrity that finally creates the stirring impression of an authentic hero of the masses, a common man who does embody virtues the system can use only for advertising purposes.

The flashback structure tends to be reliably entertaining and dramatically unreliable. The secondhand impressions of Birkut, supposedly recalled only by the recollections of friends or acquaintances, lack the self-defense mechanisms that such testimony would have in reality -- and that it did have in "Rashomon," where the theme was the relativity of truth.

Agnieszka seems a curiously disorganized investigator, ricocheting from one surprise informant to the next rather than following the available leads more systematically. It's one thing to portray the heroine as a restless temperament or a filmmaker who prefers spontaneity, but quite another to imply that she's always winging her research.

Finally, there's the enigman of the ending. After watching an intriguing, complicated story unfold for 2 1/2 hours, it's frustrating to discover that the missing pieces still seem to be missing. The search for Birkut ends in Gdansk, where Agniezka encounters Birkut's son (also played by Radziwilowicz), who informs her that his father is dead. (The son becomes a major character in the sequel -- a dockworker active in the agitation that results in Solidarity.) According to Wajda's account in a recent interview, "There was one scene cut. The young film director . . . is with the son of Birkut in the Gdansk cemetery. They are looking for a grave, but are unable to find it. This, of course, means that Birkut was killed during the 1970 strikes in Gdansk." The sequel evidently begins with a restoration of this scene. The completed epic promises to be an astonishing testament to the renewal of a nation.