WHEN A MOVIE begins with a man lighting his penis on fire — on purpose — it’s testing us. Gyorgy Palfi puts his viewers through more than one hoop in his fourth feature, 2006’s “Taxidermia,” finally released on DVD, and rich rewards await the patient film buff who takes the weirdness, humor and poignancy all in stride.

“Taxidermia” is, true to its title, about the skin we’re in, or rather the peculiar mixture of pride and supplicance that enrobed satellite states under Soviet Russia’s thumb. The film is divided into three parts, each depicting a generation of doomed men enslaved to an ideal and destroyed by pursuing it. For the World War II soldier (Csaba Czene in a brave performance), the perverse, unobtainable bliss he seeks is sexual. Kalman (Gergo Trocsanyi), a competitive eater, tries to fill the void with food and the thrill of victory as he out-eats his competitors, while schoolgirls parade with balloons in a hilarious send-up of Soviet-era propaganda.

Lajos (Marc Bischoff) is the saddest of them all — a scrawny, lonely taxidermist who, we learn to our horror, will not turn down any job if it gives him a chance to exercise his meticulous artistry. His weak, concave body is proof that his own insatiable desire — for art — is metaphysical, unearthly. What the lust for art drives him to at the film’s hushed climax is unspeakable and somehow beautiful.

Along the way, Palfi scores numerous points with wit and flair, skewering rivalry, nationalism, military hierarchies — even Hans Christian Andersen. Despite the film’s reputation for grotesquerie — well earned; we won’t lie to you about that — each section sets its own peculiar version of a romantic mood and is filled with high comedy. This is especially true of the first two segments, based on stories by Hungarian writer Lajos Parti Nagylore.

The third part, written by Palfi and his wife, shifts little in tone but grows in seriousnes. After all Hungary and the three men who represent it have been through, the temporary ringmaster can be forgiven for taking a break from mugging for laughs.

Photo courtesy Regent Releasing