For those who suspect that Serbians may not be the evil, ethnic-cleansing barbarians they are lately portrayed to be, Goran Paskaljevic has a movie for you. "Cabaret Balkan," a black satire that vividly illustrates the violent anarchy that has engulfed Yugoslavian society, has become a cult hit back home.

Audiences in the Balkans, it seems, recognize themselves in the characters that ricochet helplessly through the unpredictable maze of a broken-down Belgrade. A Bosnian Serb professor lives in a garage and drives a bus. A former army recruit hijacks the bus for no apparent reason. Two best friends pummel each other in a boxing ring for sport, then pummel each other out of the ring in anguish. A despairing young woman carries a hand grenade in her purse. It is a sad portrait of a society unraveling at both ends.

But Paskaljevic, who lives in Paris with his French wife, wasn't looking for sympathy when he shot the film in March 1998, well before the war in Kosovo. He merely intended to reflect what he sees in his native land. "All the relationships are twisted in a society like this, where we have lost the notion of morality," he says during an interview on a day-long trip through Los Angeles. "This is very close to the way it is." The film opens in Washington on Friday.

"For seven, eight years we have lived under an embargo that has enriched the mafia and the political class, killed the middle class and hurt regular people." He picks at a fruit plate at a fancy hotel overlooking the L.A. skyline as he dredges up, again, the raw hopelessness in that part of the world. "Something like three or four hundred thousand young people have left the country in the past 10 years. We are near misery. The whole young generation is without a future.

"When you live with chaos, violence starts to penetrate the family. And Belgrade is a city that lives under violence." He pauses. "Yes, there are children. Yes, there are lovers. This film is a metaphor. But it's a life with no hope. How can you have hope if you're earning $5 a week if you're lucky? If you work in a hospital where you watch children die?"

This brief soliloquy has come out in a rush, and the gray-haired Paskaljevic, dying for a cigarette, has the weary air of a man who has taken on a nation's collective pain. He sighs. Lately he has found himself defending his film to Yugoslavian exiles in America who insist that the director grossly overstates the level of despair at home.

This annoys him more than anything. If that were true, he asks, why would 250,000 people have seen the film in Belgrade, in a campaign run entirely by word-of-mouth? (The state-run media emphatically disapproved of Paskaljevic's pessimistic voice.) He says that 600,000 have seen the film across Serbia. "If the film didn't reflect some reality, there would never have been such acceptance," he says. "People tell me the reality is worse."

Which would mean things there are dire indeed. Paskaljevic's film is an Altmanesque series of tragicomic vignettes that are tied together by film's end--a kind of Slavic "Short Cuts" as seen through the bottom of a shot glass. The camera follows various characters on a nighttime odyssey through Belgrade. Nothing makes sense; violence is entirely random; hysteria lurks just beneath the surface. The young man who hijacks the bus goes on a rampage because the driver hasn't bothered to show up; he comes close to raping a young female passenger. That woman flees the bus to her macho boyfriend who, instead of comforting her, accuses her of enticing her attacker. Then the two of them are set upon by a pair of ex-communist arms traffickers. So it goes. The impression left is a sort of vertigo-inducing helplessness.

It's a sentiment with which Paskaljevic, as a longtime opponent of Slobodan Milosevic, is familiar. He was born in Belgrade, attended a distinguished film school in Prague and made his first movie as a student in 1970. He went on to direct documentaries and shorts, and began taking home festival prizes for features such as "Beach Guard in Winter" in 1976, "Special Treatment" in 1980, "Tango Argentino" in 1992 and "Someone Else's America" in 1995. "Cabaret Balkan," adapted from the play "Powder Keg" by a young Macedonian playwright, is his first film to be distributed in America. It won the international critics' award at the Venice Film Festival, among other honors.

Throughout the post-communist era, the director has been a vocal critic of the Yugoslavian regime, which is largely why he moved to Paris with his wife, Christine, in 1995. He visits Belgrade frequently to see two sons from previous marriages, and returned in 1996 and 1997 to participate in massive demonstrations against Milosevic. He was back again last year while filming "Cabaret Balkan," where he recorded the opening lines of the film from an opposition radio broadcast--an announcer calling on Milosevic to stop committing atrocities in Kosovo.

But he was also a trenchant critic of NATO's war against Serbia, despite the "ethnic cleansing" in Kosovo. "You can't protect human rights by bombing, especially with bombing that is a huge improvisation," he says. U.S. Secretary of State "Madeleine Albright convinced Clinton that it would last five or six days. It was clear that they didn't know what they were doing, they underestimated Milosevic. . . . I don't accept the politics of force. Neither of Milosevic nor of America. The politics of force creates more hate, more damage."

And he foresees more unhappiness in Kosovo and in Serbia. "It's going to be a dirty business, this whole thing. Europe and America can draw positive conclusions, they went through something new. . . . But this didn't bring great results. There is chaos in Kosovo, Serbian refugees are leaving. Because of the bombing there were 10 times more refugees, 10 times more atrocities. It destabilized your relationship with Russia."

Paskaljevic has been through this cycle before. And so has Yugoslavia. The Kosovo rebels, he says, are no better than the Serbian paramilitaries; in the past they have pushed Serbs to leave Kosovo. "The past is full of atrocities. We have to watch the future, not live in the past."

And despite all this, Paskaljevic confesses that he is oddly optimistic about the future. Something tells him that the Balkan mess, in the end, will sort itself out.

"I had to do this film, but now I have the feeling that things will work out, even if we go through a crisis. It's my innermost instinct," he says, and then he chuckles. "But I'm reacting like a Serb now. Like an artist. That's our tragedy. Our mentality is to react with the heart, and then to use reason." Pause. "But for art that's good."