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
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
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