I’ll start exploring Serbian cinema with a film from one of its famous directors, Emir Kusturica (Arizona Dream). His 1995 war drama “Underground” was critically acclaimed at Cannes and elsewhere, perhaps losing out on other major awards due to the political situation in erstwhile Yugoslavia. I admit I’m still a novice concerning his filmography, but hope to fill the gap as I get more acquainted with his body of work.
“Underground” however stands out with its unique storyline – uniquely placed because it couldn’t possibly be applied to too many countries other than Yugoslavia. Here was a nation that had constantly changed hands and names like few in Europe, sometimes with each generation (Kusturica himself quotes in the DVD interview that each generation in his own family lived in a country with a different name). The drama spans five decades, from the second World War to the breakup of Yugoslavia, and is a tale of sex, arms trade, and more importantly deceit – both between people and by its political leaders. While it casts an astonishingly cynical view on this regard, there is also ample humanity even during the film’s darker moments – it is a sincere plea by a director for the world to cast aside their negative opinion of a people, despite their apparently frequent preoccupation with war.
Blacky and Marko are best friends, communist party workers, and crooks involved in racketeering and anything else that can fetch them a fast buck. Blacky has a mistress named Natalija, a leading stage actress, one that Marko secretly covets. When Belgrade gets bombed by Germany, Marko arranges for a group of party men and their families to take refuge in a large underground bunker, including the injured Blacky. He also gets them to manufacture weapons to supply the partisans fighting the Nazis. Marko becomes the only person to sneak in and out of the bunker to conduct this trade and bring in food and supplies for those inside. He uses Blacky’s isolation to persuade Natalija to live with him in the luxury villa right on top of the bunker. But when the war ends, he doesn’t pass on the news to those underground, letting them think that their country is still at war. He also manages to convince Blacky that Marshal Tito himself had asked him to lie low for a while, for the ‘final push’. Years pass – until an accident forces inmates to wander outside, but for them, it appears the war is still on…
This film was in my Amazon Wishlist for quite a while, which was placed purely based on its reputation – I had to wait for my DVD before I could watch it for the first time. The film starts off as a comedy reminiscent of a Fellini (one could find several comparisons in theme and treatment), but becomes sinister with thinly veiled humour as the film progresses. But it is the final half hour of the film where it becomes exquisitely poetic, rich in metaphors, in the style of a Bergman or Tarkovsky. I know it is silly of me to split a work into pieces for analysis, but since my knowledge of Balkan culture in general (with the exception of Greece) is still at its infancy, I have to find other reference points. Apart from the direction, meticulous production design and art direction, I was also impressed with the soundtrack and the performances by its main cast. This is an intense, lively, and memorable piece of art, and I’m actually glad to have kick-started Eastern European cinema with this film. Needless to say, it is Highly Recommended Viewing..!