Once upon a time, there was a country and its capital was Belgrade…
Director Emir Kusturica's exuberant paean to Yugoslavia and her people was awarded the Palm D'Or at the 1995 Cannes Film Festival. The award was much deserved.
Facts of the Case
Underground is a raucous epic that follows the exploits of ne'er-do-well pals Marko (Miki Manojlovic) and Blacky (Lazar Ristovski) from the Nazi invasion of their homeland in April, 1941 to the formation of the republics of Yugoslavia in 1944, to the height of Tito's reign in the 1960s, to country's disintegration in 1992 under the weight of brutal infighting between Serbs and Croats. The film opens in the early years of World War II as Marko, Blacky, and their oddball entourage—which includes Marko's stuttering former zoo-keeper brother Ivan (Slavko Stimac) and his pet chimp Soni; and Blacky's newborn son Jhovan—hide in a massive underground cellar from the Gestapo, who are on the lookout for the two crooks after their successful robbery of an arms and munitions dump.
The volatile and passionate Blacky is deeply in love with a National Theater Company actress named Natalija (Mirjana Jokovic), but Marko soon falls for her, too. When the war comes to end, Marko hides the news from his underground compatriots so he can keep Natalija for himself. For the next 15 years, Marko and Natalija live in comfort from money made selling arms the denizens of the underground believe they're manufacturing for an anti-fascist resistance movement in the never-ending war against their German occupiers. Marko becomes a prime mover in Tito's communist government, and Blacky is lionized as a fallen war hero.
Marko's scheme falls apart in April of 1961 when Blacky convinces Jhovan, who's now come of age, that it's time for them to return to the surface and join the resistance. Marko and Blacky, once best of friends, are locked in a struggle that will stretch over the next 30 years and cause them to lose each other and themselves.
Underground is a visually aggressive dystopian dream in the style of Terry Gilliam or Jean-Pierre Jeunet, but it's no rip-off; its cultural specificity, and the personal longing with which Kusturica tells his tale ensure that. The film seamlessly knits cartoon silliness with haunting sorrow and just about every tone and emotion in between. Its wildly schizophrenic sprawl is built on a foundation of that particular combination of existential pain and unquenchable appetite for life, that full-on bear-hug of the pure and profane, singular to Eastern European art and literature. Blacky, in particular, evokes that most bawdy, passionate, lovable, and despicable of literary patriarchs, Dostoevsky's Fyodor Pavlovich Karamazov. Kusturica's film has a breadth, depth, scope, texture, and density of theme, ideas, and emotions that approximates life itself. His characters aren't a simple collection of entwined psychological motivations, sometimes in league and sometimes in conflict with one another; they're a messy mass of roiling contradictions, which is to say they're convincingly human, despite (or maybe because of) their often over-the-top antics.
The film's greatness lies in how the unfolding relationship between Marko and Blacky, their sometimes violent brotherly love for one another, parallels the passionate strife of their homeland. In the film's nearly three-hour running time, Kusturica throws at us repeated motifs of filial loyalty, human duplicity, the anguish of separation, the human tendency to construct false but convenient realities, and the shattering cost of war and violence. All of these ideas are woven into the film in such a way that they feel subordinate to character. As an audience, we ride along entertained by the wild antics of Blacky, Marko, and their cohorts, the film's big ideas slowly coming into focus over the course of its long runtime. Making a film meant to express a national and cultural identity is fraught with risk, the most obvious of which is a bloated, self-serious end product. Kusturica's succeeded in creating a national epic that is a deeply intimate and ornately detailed study of the texture of human existence. But perhaps Underground's greatest feat is a pitch-perfect Felliniesque ending that offers resilient optimism for a place in the world where hope has been a rare commodity for the past half-century.
New Yorker Films does us all a favor in bringing Underground to DVD in a gorgeous 1.85:1 anamorphically enhanced transfer that reproduces the film's gritty, natural colors and textures with near perfect clarity. Colors are fully saturated, blacks are solid, and shadow detail is rendered with great subtlety. There are a number of scenes in Underground in which elements like rain and fog play a major role in setting the visual tone and mood. The DVD handles these scenes spectacularly, delivering an image that is stylish, moody, and gorgeous. There are some negligible flaws from the source but, overall, the film transfer has a wonderful, film-like quality.
Underground's original Serbo-Croatian soundtrack is offered in Dolby stereo. The track delivers surprisingly subtle spatial definition for straight stereo. It's as good as it gets without engaging the rear channels and I have no complaints about the track in and of itself, though a surround treatment would've been ideal.
Since this is a single-disc release of a film that runs close to three hours in length, there wasn't a lot room for extras. In addition to the feature, the dual-layered disc contains a three-minute interview with Emir Kusturica. Shot on video after Underground's screening at the 1995 Cannes Film Festival, the interview is lightweight as Kusturica is prompted to talk mostly about the audience's ecstatic reaction to the film.
Underground's as bawdy, brash, and frenetic as its protagonists and their insatiable lust for life. It's an impossibly perfect mix of outrageous comedy and deeply felt longing for a homeland that no longer exists. It's a film that succeeds in looking to the future even as it looks to the past. It's too good to be missed. And thanks to New Yorker Films, not only can you see it, you can see it in style. Do so.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: New Yorker Films
• Interview with Director Emir Kusturica
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