Eliciting both joy and hatred from critics it remains a divisive and complex feature but, with a new BFI release containing a pristinely restored and heavily complimented version of the film, there has never been a better time to re-examine Emir Kusturica’s Underground.
Everyone knows the winner of the 1994 Cannes Film Festival Palme d’Or. It was Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction. Fewer, however, could say they are familiar with Underground, Emir Kusturica’s epic farewell to his homeland of Yugoslavia, which won the award the following year. When Underground was screened it caused an immediate furore, propelled by a violent and brutal war which was taking place upon the same ground as the film was set, along with the seemingly partisan motivations of its director.
On the surface, Underground is a tragi-farce which follows the story of two roguish revolutionaries; Predrag Manojlovic’s Marco and Lazar Ristovski’s Crni (known as Blacky for the subtitled English version), as they steal, conspire and womanize their way through three massive conflicts (WWII, The Cold War and the Bosnian Civil War) over the course of fifty years.
In a manipulative and underhand move during WWII, Marco convinces Blacky that he and the rest of their group must remain hidden in an underground bunker, while he finds a way to rid the city of the Nazi invaders. Once the War is over, Marco simply neglects to pass on this information and allows the underground dwellers to believe that the conflict is an ongoing one. In the meantime, they are kept busy manufacturing weapons which Marco sells on the black market.
Marco’s rise to power is playfully showcased, with documentary footage being altered to include his presence, alongside the actress Natalija (Mirjana Jokovic), whose relationship with both men played no small part in the rift which subsequently formed between them. Marco becomes a close ally of then-Yugoslavian President Josip Broz Tito, as he forges a political career which is complimented by his more nefarious activities.
Accompanied by a frenetic soundtrack, largely played live by a raggle taggle group of traditional Balkan musicians, the madness escalates as the decades pass. Kusturica’s grandiose sets and luscious sense of style and aesthetic allow the film to enamour and thrill as it develops.
It’s a carnival of spectacle, with a dizzying construct which delights, excites, disorientates, and always entertains. Underground is a deeply thought-out feature film which displays the consideration and craft of its director in every frame. From its booze-soaked introduction, reminiscent of bawdy westerns, the film displays an anarchic and individualistic sense of pride and purpose.
To delve a little deeper into the narrative, however, reveals a staunchly pro-Serbian message. One wonders what might have happened had the film been released two months later, after news of the Srebrenica massacre (in which Serb militants executed over 8,000 Muslims who had fled to a UN declared safe zone) was made public?
A war of words began between Kusturica and several leading philosophers and critics of the time, some of whom interestingly changed their opinions throughout the course of the following decades. He proclaimed his film was merely art. Accusations of a darker, intentional subversion followed. The resulting controversy raises the fascinating question of whether a fictionalized narrative can hold more influence over the standpoints taken by an outsider, when it comes to the issues of conflict, terrorism and war, than cold facts and non-fiction reportage?
As an Irish writer who has lived both North and South of the border during the ‘80s and ‘90s, it’s an alluring question, for there are certainly two perspectives which exist when processing cinema that deals with these issues (Steve McQueen’s Hunger being a prime example). There would certainly be opposing viewpoints on Israeli filmmaker Eran Riklis’ Lemon Tree if it were shown to a split audience of Palestinians and Israelis. The same would apply to Hollywood’s interpretation of the Vietnam War throughout the 1980s. So, should cinema which reflects upon war be treated with a more discerning approach from the viewer, due to the ability for it to elicit certain standpoints which would not have been generated, were it not for the craftsmanship and allure created by a talented filmmaker?
The Balkan Crisis is a horrendous chapter in recent history which is echoing in the present, due to the mass migration and extremist attacks taking place across Europe, The Middle East and Northern Africa. Who’s to know how cinema will interpret the current situation in the coming years?
Regardless of the political message, Underground is also a lament to a country in decline; an examination of a historical transition, lavishly played out in an epic display of audaciousness and mischievous glee. With a deeply affecting climax and a horde of unforgettable sequences, Underground is, from a cinematic perspective at least, an essential part of ’90s European cinema.
The just-released, 3-Disc set from BFI is definitely the best way for newcomers to approach this film, for it also contains the extended version Once Upon A Time There Was A Country, which was shown on television. This extensive cut is an essential addition to the film itself, for it contextualises and expands upon many elements which, whilst important to the feature’s coherence, were simply impossible to include in the feature for logistical reasons.
Essays from Dina Iordanova and Sean Homer allow for an academic insight into the cultural and political ramifications of the film, highlighting the angst which exists within it; a conflict which arises in both person and place. The Cannes fallout is dissected in the latter, with Homer examining the reactions to the film, and how they have changed over two passing decades.
Added television documentaries, on-set interviews and trivia ensure that this will be the definitive collection of material on this movie for years to come. The restoration is crisp and striking, with an enhanced audio which strengthens Kusturica’s vision remarkably well, showcasing how every element of this feature film was as considered as the next.
Not just an important film from a cineaste’s perspective, but from a historical one, Underground is a controversial classic which not nearly enough people have seen. Make sure that is something which is remedied.
NB: Trailer Not representative of BFI release Quality. For Reference Purposes Only.