WHAT IS the aftermath of war in the Balkans?

In the brutal, uncompromising "Cabaret Balkan," life in 1995 Belgrade has become a sort of circus hell on earth. The clowns are just as likely to kill each other as douse their fellow performers with buckets of water. Is this a comedy with a hideous edge or a tragedy with light touches? Whatever the call, this is an extraordinary, disturbing and illuminating movie.

Based on Macedonian playwright Dejan Dukovski's stage drama "The Powder Keg," the film moves from one vignette to another, catching Belgrade at its best and worst. Unfortunately, the city is usually at its worst.

In one, an angry young man (Sergej Trifunovic) bullies his aging fellow passengers to get angry about a bus whose departure has been delayed by a lazy driver. When they remain passive, he takes the bus hostage.

In another, a woman (Mirjana Jokovic) suffers sexual harassment, only to get an earful from her jealous boyfriend who feels she encouraged it.

One man (Aleksandar Bercek) who has suffered a hideous beating from an unknown assailant walks into a bar, only to meet the man responsible. But when we learn his reasons for the beating, we reconsider things.

In the movie's most amazing scene, two boxers (Lazar Ristovski and Dragan Nikolic) meet in a boxing gym. They know each other from way back. In fact, they were best friends. But little by little, as they playfully -- and not-so playfully -- box each other, they recount deadly secrets they have withheld. Each revelation in the latter scene is met with a frown, then a twisted smile, then a giggle, then a darker frown. The sparring continues. And the bitterness becomes life-threatening.

The outbreaks of violence are hard to take, at times. And the atmosphere, set during the course of one night and right on the eve of the Bosnia crisis, is stifling and fatalistic. Watching director Goran Paskaljevic's film, which he co-wrote with Dukovski, I was struck by a world so defined by hatred, its only operating moral is to remember everything: whether it's the rape of a neighbor's daughter last week or 500 years of Turkish rule.

But if Paskaljevic -- a Yugoslav expatriate of Serbian descent -- has a tough hand, he also keeps it cupped around a sort of flickering hopefulness. Life in this movie is so hopeless, people are almost forced to become human. It's the only way out.

In that boxing scene, for instance, the men look at each other with godlike, even sexual intelligence. They read each other's souls so intimately, they love, hate and understand. You can feel all of these passions in their prolonged glances, the raspy laughter and the unbearable silences. However you emerge from this scene and the movie, which won a critics' prize at the 1998 Venice Film Festival, you don't leave indifferently.

CABARET BALKAN (Unrated, 100 minutes) -- In Serbo-Croatian with subtitles. Contains disturbing material, ranging from physical violence to misogyny to emotional brutality. At the Cineplex Odeon Inner Circle 3.