Nonetheless the movie has a few charms, not the least being its depiction of a shanty-dwelling family that lives on a hill above the city and occasionally interacts with the different travelers. The older son is the car-jacker. Joselito, the younger son, is an elfin schemer who has figured out how to rewire the streetlights to provide electricity for his family's New Year's Eve celebration. While out on the street he crosses paths with a homeless man who turns out to be a relative of another character. A separate amusing subplot involves two gas station attendants who obsess about their love lives, their respective breast sizes, and the propriety of drinking the champagne kept in the cabinets behind the cash register.

Details such as these are far more interesting than the musty symbolism of throwing together rich and poor, young and old, parents and children, to indicate the universality of human experience. Also engaging is the cinematography, which shows off the seedier areas of nighttime Madrid to effervescent effect. We may wonder why young Joselito bothers to use his ability to manipulate electricity for the benefit of his obnoxious parents ("I'll throttle you," his mother growls when he can't get the wiring to work to her satisfaction), but we're glad he finally turns on the lights. The slums never looked better. (Sunday, February 28, 2:00 p.m.)

-- Robin Dougherty

For those of us trying to piece together the reality of the various civil wars in Yugoslavia from unemotional news reports, Goran Paskaljevic's The Powder Keg is a maddeningly difficult story to navigate. The director wants to give us something more than mere headlines, but it's obvious he no longer lives in the same universe we do. From the first scene, which depicts a seemingly ordinary fender-bender, we're plunged into a relentless landscape of aggression. A teen who runs a stop sign is attacked by the driver of the car he hits, who then proceeds to kick in the boy's windshield. When the kid runs away, the driver shows up at the teen's house with a friend. Together they smash the furniture and terrorize the boy's father. People's nerves, it would seem, are monstrously on edge.

As the saying goes, the Balkans are the powder keg of the world. We may have learned that catch phrase in history class, but Paskaljevic (1992's Tango Argentino) wants us to experience it firsthand. His film (in Serbo-Croatian with English subtitles), which won the Critics' Prize at last year's Venice Film Festival, takes place in Belgrade on a single night in 1995, by no coincidence, the same day the Dayton peace agreement that settled the Bosnian civil war was signed. Paskaljevic uses an episodic structure, taking us from one group of aggressors and victims to the next. (The screenplay, by Macedonian playwright Dejan Dukovski and others, is structured after Arthur Schnitzler's 1900 stage play La Ronde, about immoral behavior.) In this way we see that -- presumably because of the war -- all antisocial inhibitions have been dissolved. Rape, torture, and humiliation are the methods by which people now interact with one another.

The problem is it's nearly impossible to put into context the horrific violence that's become an everyday occurrence for Yugoslavians; it simply doesn't make sense outside the world in which it exists. (The Powder Keg is Yugoslavia's 1998 selection for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film.) Some of the episodes, however, are fascinating: A cab driver follows a limping man into a bar and elicits from him the story of how he was beaten with a crowbar by someone he couldn't see. Then the cab driver confesses he broke the guy's bones in retaliation for a similarly savage beating the man had given him earlier. Then, incredibly, the cab driver offers his victim a ride home, and the man accepts it. Can we really understand a transaction such as this? Probably not, unless we've lived through something of the same magnitude.

For that reason sitting through The Powder Keg is like watching a movie about a dozen Travis Bickles, none of whom we get to know as well as we do the troubled protagonist of Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver (1976). Witnessing story after story in which people brutalize each other doesn't necessarily make us more sensitive or more knowledgeable. In a way the film's own structure undermines its power. Instead of leading us through the characters' lives, Paskaljevic just gives us glimpses of the circumstances that set off these people. After three or four violent vignettes, the movie begins to feel exploitative. One of the many tragedies of Yugoslavia is that the rest of the world can't fathom it. For all its good intentions, The Powder Keg never lets us get inside the nation and its seemingly endless difficulties. (Sunday, February 28, 4:30 p.m.)

-- Robin Dougherty

One of the the primary precepts of any good film noir is that the movie's characters should be oblivious to the unwritten rules that dictate the conventions of their hard-boiled, black-and-white world. Crime may not pay, but the criminals aren't supposed to realize that. So having a grizzled cop read a paperback by famed noir novelist Jim Thompson is just one revealing sign that director Sebastian Gutierrez's by-the-numbers debut feature Judas Kiss seems ill-conceived. From start to finish Gutierrez rolls out mossy cliches from virtually every bank-heist film ever made. Although his intention might have been to concoct a loving tribute, or perhaps a tongue-in-cheek sendup, the result nonetheless is pure tedium.

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