If Fellini had shot a war movie, it might resemble “Underground.” Emir Kusturica’s epic black comedy about Yugoslavia from 1941 to 1992 is a three-hour steamroller circus that leaves the viewer dazed and exhausted, but mightily impressed. Its energy, coupled with its ringing (if simplistic) condemnation of the years of communism and the current war, make it one of the most emotionally engaging and exhilarating films at Cannes.
Though “Underground” has the potential to capture broad audiences for subtitled films, not all viewers will have the stamina to watch it to the end. A serious re-editing could benefit the film by giving it more structure; the repetitive central section, in particular, needs trimming to keep the dense story focused and clarify the relation among pic’s three parts.
Accompanied by a band of tuba and horn players whose rollicking gypsy music is reprised throughout the film, pic kicks off to a wild and joyous start. Leading the band is Marko (Miki Manojlovic), dancing and whoring his way through 1941 Belgrade. He and his best pal, Blacky (Lazar Ristovski), are at the same
time patriots and gangsters, directing a black-market operation from a warren of underground tunnels, where Marko also holds on-the-run Communist Party meetings. In one of the film’s most brilliant scenes, a German air raid strikes the zoo where Marko’s innocent brother Ivan (Slavko Stimac) works. Kusturica’s vision of the bombs destroying defenseless caged animals goes straight to the heart.
Though the Gestapo is after them, Blacky and Marko continue partying. They hide their families in a cellar, where refugees have put together an underground munitions factory. After his wife dies in childbirth, Blacky begins courting headstrong actress Natalija (Mirjana Jokovic). When she rejects him in favor of Nazi officer Franz (Ernst Stotzner), Blacky shoots Franz, but the Nazi survives and throws Blacky in a torture chamber. Marko stages a farcical rescue dressed as a doctor and smuggles Blacky out.
While Blacky recuperates in the cellar, Marko seduces Natalija. As Allied bombers destroy what the Nazis have left of Bel-grade, Marko completes his betrayal: He makes the refugees in the cellar believe the war is still going on.
Twenty years later, Marko has become an important party boss. In the cellar, Blacky and the others keep manufacturing arms while they wait for Tito’s call to “the final battle.” Though they eat dog food and their lives are a lie, the cellar’s inhabitants believe they are living the good life, protected from the world’s evil.
The metaphor obviously relates to how Yugoslavs saw themselves under Tito’s rule. Situation climaxes during a long, drawn-out sequence in which Marko and Natalija, still posing as revolutionary fighters, go underground to attend the wedding of Blacky’s son Jovan. Ivan’s pet monkey frees the community by climbing into a tank and blasting a hole in the wall.
Pic’s final section, “The War,” takes place in 1992. Ivan learns the truth about his brother’s treachery, and the fate of the country he knew as Yugoslavia. Returning home, he finds a crippled Marko and aged Natalija dealing in arms and drugs with anyone who’ll do business. (Kusturica cameos as their unscrupulous client.)
Kusturica presents the conventional view that the conflict is a civil war in which all parties are guilty: The breakup of Yugoslavia is the great tragedy, and violence comes from all sides. Given the film and director’s high profile, this view is bound to be controversial among some viewers.
Manojlovic, a Kusturica regular, is superbly comic as the treacherous Marko. Ristovski has the wild-eyed brute appeal of a silent film comic, while Jokovic as his great love, Natalija, is a convincing opportunist. Stimac’s Ivan paradoxically shows his goodness through his affection for animals and his resemblance to his beloved monkey.
This mammoth film was largely financed by Ciby 2000, with additional funds supplied by Germany, Hungary and Eurimages. Kusturica’s regular cinematographer, Vilko Filac, paints the images like surreal nightmares. When the noise dies down a second, composer Goran Bregovic steps in with a blasting, irresistible score that draws heavily on gypsy source music.