Thursday, May 5, 2016

Film Review: Underground

**** (out of ****)

It is a line that comes near the end of Emir Kusturica's "Underground" (1997) but it is a key line - "there is no war until a brother kills a brother". The line represents a mentality that perhaps sums up the entire reason Mr. Kusturica made "Underground" to begin with.

Mr. Kusturica's "Underground", which won the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival in 1995, was made and released during the Bosnian War and the time of Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic's ethnic cleansing, which brought about the breakup of Yugoslavia.

The key line in the movie is supposed to refer to Serbians killing Bosnians and vice versa. Not brothers by blood but brothers in a national sense. It is a sentiment which even caused a stir in Europe during the movie's initial release with movie critics (sheep) especially in Mr. Kusturica's homeland, as many felt Mr. Kusturica, a Bosnian, was overlooking / excusing the actions of Serbians. "Underground" is a movie that does not take sides. "Underground" is instead interested in the concept of a country no longer existing. There is no such thing as "Yugoslavia" anymore. The maps have been rewritten. Yugoslavia is now a memory.

That too is an important theme in Mr. Kusturica's masterpiece. The movie begins by telling us there once was a place called Yugoslavia, as if it was all a fairy tale. What audiences are presented with however it not a fairy tale but instead a devilish, chaotic celebration of a country Mr. Kusturica loved. At its best you can compare "Underground" to the work of Federico Fellini. "Underground" is a satirical and jaded look at the history of and downfall of a country.

Unlike the reaction in Europe, movie critics in America, though sparse (not even Siskel & Ebert reviewed it) praised the movie. Michael Wilmington, formerly of the Chicago Tribune, called "Underground" "possibly the finest film made in the old Yugoslavia" and declared it one of the best movies of 1997, when it was released in America.

The celebratory nature of the movie is immediately established in the first scene of the movie (which takes place in 1941) as we hear a brass band playing the Romanian folk song "The Ciocirlia" (in english "The Lark"). They are following best friends Marko (Miki Manojlovic) and "Blacky" (Lazar Ristovski), both of whom are drunk and dancing to the music, while driving a horse carriage. The brass band accompanies the two men at all times because the music creates the emotion they want to feel. It is not unlike what Gary Cooper does in Billy Wilder's "Love in the Afternoon" (1957) where a Hungarian band (cimbalom and all) follows Mr. Cooper's character for romantic effect.

Marko is driving Blacky home to his pregnant wife, Vera (Mirjana Karanovic), who is not happy to see her husband drunk and suspects Blacky is cheating on her with an actress, Natalija (Mirjana Jokovic). In an attempt to clear things up for his friend, Marko explains Blacky was with him and has became a member of the Communist Party.

While Blacky is now a member of the Communist Party, the truth is, he is in love with Natalija and is driven mad with jealousy when he finds out she is spending her time with Nazi soldier Franz (Ernst Stotzner). Natalija may not love Franz but with the Nazi's occupying the city she must do what she can to survive along with her handicapped brother Bata (Davor Dujmovic). Blacky doesn't see it that way and decides Franz must be killed. Natalija is his woman.

Blacky goes through with his plan and as a result the Nazis have put out a bulletin for him. Marko hides Blacky, Vera and several others in a in a cellar until everything blows over. Meanwhile Marko now has eyes for Natalija and gets her to betray Blacky. Marko has another scheme up his sleeve and lies to everyone about the war. He keeps everyone in the cellar for 20 years. He is using them to make weapons which Marko sells on the black market.

In order to keep his lie going every morning Marko wakes up and puts on recordings of Nazi radio programs, has puts the sound of sirens on speakers, leading everyone to believe there are air raid warnings and when he periodically visits the cellar, he informs Blacky that even Josip Broz Tito talks about him and is waiting to use him for "the final battle", which pacifies Blacky from trying to escape the cellar.

Marko, who has now married Natalija, has become a big wig in the Communist Party and Natalija is considered one of the finest actresses in the country. The two are so beloved that a movie based on their life and the reported death of their comrade, Blacky, is being made. This is countered with life in the cellar as people adjust and try to lead a normal life, all the while praying the Nazis are defeated.

The concept of the movie is so outlandish that no one, not even Mr. Kusturica, can take this story serious. Mr. Kusturica has fun with this story as he tries to blend fact and fiction, using the old "Forrest Gump" (1994) technique of using achieve footage of historical events and inserting the characters of his story into them, interacting with various figures. It doesn't always look as polished as it did in "Forrest Gump" but that is okay. It adds to the 'flavor' of "Underground" as an exaggerated political satire.

What audiences will respond to most as they watch "Underground" is the movie's spirit. Some have compared the tone of the movie to a circus or carnival. They aren't too far off. The camera seems to dance with excitement as it follows these characters as absurd situation after absurd situation is created. On the day Belgrade is being bombed by the Nazis we see a zoo destroyed, animals roam free in the city. Marko is with a prostitute and just about as he is going to climax they both hear bombs. Buildings are being destroyed in the background. The prostitute wants to leave and run for safety but Marko is only concerned with "finishing the job". The Blacky character is something of a Serbian Rambo madman always ready for a fight and in one scene he is being tortured by electric shock. It has no effect on him and the machine breaks.

But Mr. Kusturica also gives his movie heart. It is that blend of wild comedy and a touch a poignancy which makes "Underground" something more than a silly farce and keeps the audience interested. Good intentions doesn't mean you have a good movie but it implies the director has heart and passion for a project. That passion and heartfelt sentiment is present in "Underground".

At the time of the Bosnian War many artist were inspired to make films commenting on this horrific event, particularly filmmakers from the Balkans. There was Goran Paskaljevic's "Cabaret Balkan" (1998), which also starred Mirjana Jokovic and Lazar Ristovski, Milcho Manchevski's "Before the Rain" (1994), Jasmin Dizdar "Beautiful People" (1999) and the Academy Award winning "No Man's Land" (2001) by Danis Tanovic. But the movie I mostly associate "Underground" with is Theo Angelopoulos' "Ulysses' Gaze" (1997). Both movies comment on the Bosnian War. Both movies competed for the Palme d'Or in 1995. Both movies were released in America two years later. And both movies made my list of the ten best movies of 1997.

Emir Kusturica is one of his country's great filmmakers and one of its most critically acclaimed. He won the best director award at the Cannes Film Festival for "Time of the Gypsies" (1990). He has had four movies nominated for the Palme d'Or; "Time of the Gypsies", "When Father Was Away On Business" (1985), "Underground" and "Life Is A Miracle" (2004). Two of these movies won the award; "Father" and "Underground". His "Black Cat, White Cat" (1998) was nominated for the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival as was "Do You Remember Dolly Bell?" (1981). Unfortunately in America Mr. Kusturica been overlooked. His latest movies have not even been distributed in the country which naturally prevents him from being "discovered" by today's movie fans.

It is often believed we all have one great story in us to tell. For Emir Kusturica "Underground" may have been that great story. I have enjoyed all of his movies to various degrees but "Underground" is the movie where the ingredients all came together properly. Many of the movies he has released after "Underground" feel as if he is trying to duplicate its success and mad-cap spirit. They have been good movies but have not been as inspiring. Even his "Life Is A Miracle" dealt with a similar theme but didn't match the excitement presented here. Still Mr. Kusturica is a unique talent, a gifted artist. His work deserves to be seen. "Underground" is the place to start.