Nashville Scene

DIRECTED BY: Emir Kusturica

REVIEWED: 03-30-98

Emir Kusturica's Underground is, among other things, the first movie about the collapse of the former Yugoslavia that you could recommend wholeheartedly to a Three Stooges fan. It's also one of the great moviegoing experiences of recent years--a work of staggering sadness, vitality, and comic invention that's as awe-inspiring a spectacle in its own unhinged way as Titanic. An inexhaustible salvo of slapstick routines, sleight of hand, and political theater played out as deadly vaudeville, the movie's two-hour-and-47-minute running time whizzes by like a blizzard of bottle rockets. Yet at heart Underground is a monstrous, drunken wake for a country that killed itself. The casket's packed with booze, and the corpse puffs an exploding cigar, but no amount of desperate tomfoolery can diminish the loss.

Underground distills the last five decades of Yugoslavian history into a massive metaphorical construct that's part Marx Brothers, part lyrical tragedy, and part metafictional hootenanny. The curtains open with a fairy-tale declaration "Once upon a time there was a country." Then bang! Kusturica joins bang! pistol-waving loonies and a brass band in full oompah as they tear ass through the streets of Belgrade, as though it weren't 1941 and the Nazis weren't laying waste to Central Europe.

But it is, and they are. As best buddies Blacky (Lazar Ristovski) and Marko (Miki Manojlovic) indulge their gluttonous appetites for food and sex, a gentle zookeeper hears a whistling high overhead. He looks up to see Axis bombs shatter the cages and loose the imprisoned animals. A goose nips at a wounded tiger; the tiger downs the goose with a weary chomp. Meanwhile, in a hooker's apartment, Marko races the bombs to climax. Blacky, across town, doesn't mind the explosions as long as they don't interfere with breakfast.

With the city reduced to rubble, the scheming Marko convinces his rash, impressionable pal to help him hijack Nazi convoys filled with gold and arms. Blacky's all too willing to help, especially since his mistress, the faithless actress Natalija (Mirjana Jokovic), is courting favor with a Nazi officer. After brazenly kidnapping her in the middle of a stage play--a wildly farcical scene that dumps the characters into a fictional world, the first of many such instances--Blacky is captured and tortured, and Marko and Natalija come to his rescue in one of the most inept getaway capers ever filmed.

They stash the wounded Blacky with dozens of blinkered refugees in a cavernous underground munitions factory beneath Marko's house. There he joins a small civilization that includes his son, the zookeeper, a superintelligent chimp, and the brass band, among others. But when the war ends and Marshal Tito comes into power, Marko fears the reemergence of his best friend, especially since he has seduced Natalija in the meantime. Therefore, Marko and Natalija will spend the next 15 years sustaining an elaborate hoax, a fiction designed to convince Blacky and the underground dwellers that World War II still rages on the streets--the better to live off Blacky's status as a martyr.

Forgive this clumsy synopsis, which conveys none of the constant surprise of the plotting (by Kusturica and playwright Dusan Kovacevic) or the pure dammit-to-hell exuberance of Kusturica's filmmaking. At play there's a kind of silent-comedy logic, which makes it perfectly acceptable for, say, an urban dweller to see his shoes swiped by an elephant. Vilko Filac's camera wanders through antic tableaux of Baltic revelers in takes that last minutes on end, and for variety the camera might swing on the muzzle of a tank gun, or whirl around on a lazy Susan crammed with tuba players. The whole thing is propelled by a frantic Goran Bregovic score that sounds like an army of ducks walking on bicycle horns. If the movie were any more boisterous, the reels would fly off the projector and carom off the walls.

But the noise, the raunchy humor, and the visual bombardment never obscure the movie's gravity. When it won the Palme d'Or three years ago at Cannes, in a victory that sparked an international controversy, Underground was reviled abroad as Serbian propaganda, and the Sarajevo-born Kusturica was denounced as a traitor. (Perhaps that's because he includes newsreel footage of cheering Croatians welcoming the Nazi invaders during the war.) If indeed there are subtleties that show Kusturica favors one ethnicity over another, they're either lost in translation or lost on Western audiences.

What isn't lost is Kusturica's grieving for his fractured homeland, or his even-handed indictment of his countrymen for their willingness either to exploit or to allow themselves to be exploited. The disintegration of postwar Yugoslavia, in the movie's terms, is a ridiculous fiction that required the collaboration of most of its citizens, whether they're the Markos who conspired to line their pockets by oppressing their comrades, or they're the Blackies who blindly accepted whatever leadership came to power. Nazi, Communist, whatever--the director greets each new shift in the power structure with the same ironic refrain of "Lili Marlene."

Kusturica doesn't even entirely trust the process of moviemaking, which strikes him as a little too close to Marko's brand of myth-making manipulation. Doctored newsreels coincide with the Rube Goldberg-like periscope that Marko uses to spy on the world underground. In the movie's most riotous scene, Blacky finally emerges from his hole only to blunder into a tacky biopic--his own.

As often in satire, Underground's heroes are almost completely lacking in psychological complexity. Like carousers in a Fielding novel, the characters show happiness by breaking into a jig, and if someone feels racked by guilt, he's likely as not to express it by shooting himself in the leg a few times. And yet the movie grows almost imperceptibly more somber. By the film's final section, when father loses son and brother kills brother, the zaniness of the first two-thirds has given way to a long, sustained note of regret and to indelibly surreal images of devastation: a flaming wheelchair creeping in circles, a body suspended from the rope of an incessantly pealing church bell.

Underground closes with a coda of extraordinary sweetness and beauty, as Kusturica literally reassembles his country before casting it adrift forever on a sea of memory. Underground is scheduled to play only a week at the Watkins Belcourt; we can only hope it draws more of an audience than the excellent Welcome to Sarajevo did a few weeks ago. If not, maybe local audiences can't stomach movies about the Bosnian conflict, however abstract and stylized, because they remind us that once upon a time there was a country where brother killed brother, and we lived there.

--Jim Ridley

Full Length Reviews

Capsule Reviews

Other Films by Emir Kusturica
Black Cat, White Cat

Film Vault Suggested Links
A Friend of the Deceased
The Best Man
The Pelvis of J.W.

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