Country: Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, France, Germany, Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Hungary
Language: Serbian, German, French, English, Russian
Genre: Comedy, Drama, War
Director: Emir Kusturica
Music: Goran Bregovic
Cinematography: Vilko Filac
Predrag ‘Miki’ Manojlovic
Srdjan ‘Zika’ Todorovic
UNDERGROUND, Serbian boy-wonder Emir Kusturica’s fifth feature saga sanctifies him as a lofty two-time Palme d’Or winner, a coterie whose total number has just recently been changed to eight with Ken Loach’s I, DANIEL BLAKE (2016).
Traversing over half a century, from WWII in 1941 to the Yugoslav Wars in 1992, UNDERGROUND is Kusturica’s passion project which orchestrates his surrealistic idiosyncrasy to the full bloom under a vast canvas of historical reality (using, sometimes tampered, real-life archives). A central triad of this epic is Marko Dren (Manojlovic), Petar “Blacky” Popara (Ristovski) and Natalija Zovkov (Jokovic), Marko and Blacky are best friends, communist warriors during Nazi’s invasion of Belgrade, both fall under the spell of Natalija, a theatre actress has no political predilection and only wants to survive in the war-torn quicksand.
From the onset of Part One: War, an air-raiding sequence in the zoo which will precipitate the concern from animal-loving viewers, Kusturica teasingly vouchsafes the overall tenor of his approach: anarchic, droll, perverse, intermittently delirious and fantastical, while the narrative jumps with an irregular heartbeat sometimes can be bewildering and far too outlandish to elicit viewer’s investment, but one can hardly resist its energetic defiance and raucous roughhouse, as well as the infectious Csárdás dance, all aligns with a strenuous, mostly studio-bound mise-en-scène.
The biggest conceit appears in Part Two: Cold War, Marko’s elaborate whopper that keeps Blacky and others, including Marko’s stuttering younger brother Ivan (Stimac), living underground for 20 years in a huge cellar, the time now is 1961, by telling them and consistently providing evidences that WWII is still ongoing and they must hide and do their best job, manufacturing weapons, to support their country. Meantime, on the ground, Marko and Natalija become an official item and ascend on their rungs of political ladder, to a point Marko becomes one of Tito’s closest associates. A rapier-like progression of Marko from a hot-blooded freedom-fighter to a profiteering warmonger astringently undermines the overarching patriotism. Both Marko and Natalija are afflicted by their mounting guilt over the web of lies, and their frailties start to become their undoing during the subterranean wedding of Blacky’s son Jovan (Todorovic), who has never seen daylight in his entire life, and soon would wish that he had never been to the outside. The wedding is a cacophony of celebration and ruckus, flying bride, chimp-in-a-tank and a rotating band never ceases to fashion razzmatazz of brassy euphoria.
The ensuing Blacky’s revelation of the real world coincides with a wry and travestied movie-shooting of his heroic past, where dead ringers accentuate its grotesque brutality; on another subplot, Ivan also walks close to reality, but what he finds is a series of dusty underground passages leading to Berlin and Athens, which is even wackier than his own backstory.
In its final chapter, Part Three: War, the time-frame forwards to 1992, Marko and Natalija meet their comeuppance when warfare again sets its ravage in motion upon this troubled land, Blacky can only reminisce about his deceased friends and love with a fallen Jesus Christ adjacent, eventually, in the dream-like coda, merriment drifts offshore, into oblivion, as all the victims of the war, after all, the satire is on ourselves, we are all, more or less, are complicit in our self-destructive thirst to destroy and conquer, whether it is power, money, or woman.
A meritorious enterprise from Kusturica, performance-wise, Manojlovic and Ristovski are two cracking examples of lunacy and gallantry on screen, but Ristovski is less consistent hampered by Natalija’s ambivalent temperament. UNDERGROUND is dazzlingly gonzo, but pungently allegorical, it can never appease all those who are involved, but should be prized for its boldness and ingenuity, but a Palme d’Or? Maybe its 1995 line-up is not that impressive in retrospect.