You know what’s going to happen in Vukovar, but that doesn’t make it any less wrenching when it does. The story of a young Yugoslavian couple who marry just as the Berlin Wall’s fall foretells the collapse of their country, director Boro Draskovic’s film doesn’t flinch from depicting the destruction of everything—buildings, friendships, lives, honor—in the once-elegant city of Vukovar.

Filmed in 1993, Vukovar has had its own political problems. Denounced by both Serbians and Croatians for not taking their side in the conflict, the film has faced angry audiences and canceled screenings. To most American viewers, though, the controversy will probably seem as inexplicable as the civil war itself. Draskovic, who co-wrote the script with Maja Draskovic, makes it clear that the “mixed marriage” of Croatian Anna (Mirjana Jokovic) and Serbian Toma (Boris Isakovic) embodies the promise of Yugoslavia. Technically, this is a “Serbian” film, but the brutal, deranged forces that tear the central characters apart are interchangeable in everything save ethnicity.

For dramatic purposes, Anna and Toma’s wedding is spectacularly ill-timed; their nuptial motorcade is interrupted by parades of demonstrators demanding the country’s ethnic subdivision. “You marry, while we’re making history?” demands one lout, roughly grabbing the bride. Anna barely has time to get pregnant before Toma leaves to do his military service; the country’s ethnically mingled future is in her womb, but he must go to fight battles left over from World War II.

Anna stays with her in-laws, who soon flee Vukovar; after a bomb shakes their house, she moves back to her parents. As bodies begin to float down the Danube, that house also fails to provide a safe haven. Soon she and her friend Ratka (Monica Romic) face all the horrors that have rendered infamous the former Yugoslavia: starvation, anarchy, snipers, gang rape. It’s the “butterfly effect,” one character explains; a single fluttering of evil’s wings creates ripples that tear a nation apart.

To give his tale added literary clout, Draskovic periodically invokes Shakespeare. Toma and Anna are Romeo and Juliet, of course, and at one point the shellshocked Toma encounters a trio of old women stirring a ghastly stew—Macbeth’s three witches, proclaiming the “hurlyburly” of war. But this scene, though striking, doesn’t fit very well. Not exactly an art film, Vukovar has a fundamentally mainstream sensibility, as its jarringly bombastic Eurorock score keeps affirming. Like the barely functional explicatory dialogue of the brief young-love idyll that precedes the action, the Shakespearean allusions have little to do with the film’s power.

That power comes from what is least literary and most documentary in Draskovic’s vision. The film was shot in the ruined Vukovar, and its remains are as eloquent as the drained, stunned faces of Anna and Toma. Fittingly, the final shot is not of the uncoupled lovers but the city itself, viewed in a stately aerial tracking shot. (Since U.N. forces had declared Vukovar a no-fly zone, it took the filmmakers three months to get permission to take one of their cameras up in a helicopter.) The vista is both a memorial and a rebuke. CP