When Yugoslavia crumbled into several warring ethnic factions in the 1990s, the myriad tensions tearing at the country's makeshift republic seemed unwieldy and indecipherable. Emil Kusturica’s epic love letter to his country, Underground, makes emotional sense of political chaos using a combination of broad farce, allegory, dark irony, and an indefatigable affection for his homeland. The visionary flair with which Kusturica probes Yugoslavia's conflicted soul is sometimes hard to take — it veers from aggressively wacky to searingly painful — but it's a worthy and occasionally awe-inspiring film to experience.
Underground starts on the eve of The Kingdom of Yugoslavia's invasion by the Germans in 1941 and carries on through the civil wars that dismantled the communist Republic of Yugoslavia some 50 years later, using a trio of characters and their extended community to examine and celebrate five decades of dysfunctional national unity. To avoid persecution from the occupying Nazis, rowdy communists Marko (Miki Manojlović) and Blacky (Lazar Ristovski) go into hiding, moving their families into a massive cellar completely disconnected from the world above. Meanwhile, Marko and Blacky turn their resistance into gangsterism, treating their war-torn country as a playground of opportunity. Boisterous Blacky, whose beleaguered wife is pregnant, brazenly chases after beautiful but capricious actress Natalija (Mirjana Joković), who has also caught the eye of a German officer. The cagier Marko lurks in the noisy Blacky's wake, also with an eye on Natalija and whatever else he might gain for himself, with an abbreviated sense of loyalty to his friends that only extends to where his own interests begin. The paths that these three take through the country's half-century of communist rule is consistently surprising, sometimes inappropriately fun and other times harrowing, but often magical.
Underground starts with its eccentricities at a fever-pitch, driven by the omnipresent drunken forced-fun soundtrack of "Balkan brass" (courtesy of a roving brass ensemble that features in most scenes), and for the first hour I worried that its aggressive quirkiness, while bracing, would be hard to take for three full hours. With cues taken from both Federico Fellini and Looney Tunes, the first half of Underground is alternately infectious and overbearing (especially when goofy electrocution is involved). In an epic, however, there's plenty of time for recovery, and after the hour mark, Kusturica's genius becomes more apparent than his mischief, and the final 90 minutes feature a cascade of provocative events and stunning set-pieces that are sweeping in scope, both historically and emotionally. The wedding scene at the heart of Underground is ecstatically engaging and powerfully momentous, and just one of many masterfully conceived and executed scenes that continue to reverberate visually and meaningfully long after the end credits roll.
Manojlović and Ristovski are compelling presences on either side of Joković, who gives a riveting, complex comic performance with a veneer of shallowness masking currents of joy, sexuality, narcissism, and shame, all fed by her thirst for control and stability. Together, the three of them embody the generous spirit of irreverent self-reflection and indulgent celebration of life that courses throughout Underground, making it, once it settles into its groove, a deeply affectionate and majestically personal vision of national pride, both despite and because of the horrific complications of history.
Underground was brought to my Potluck Film Fest by Flickcharter Nick Dallas. He ranks it on his Flickchart at #390 / 2181 (82%), putting it at #3 out of the 6 Cannes Palme d'Or Winners on his Flickchart. Underground ranked on my overall chart at #512 (87%), where it's my 12th favorite out of 28 Cannes Palme d'Or Winners.