Monday, January 26, 2009
Films I Love #16: Underground (Emir Kusturica, 1995)
Underground is Emir Kusturica's wildly ambitious, relentlessly energetic, tragicomic allegory for the history of his native Yugoslavia from the Nazi invasion of World War II up to the disintegration of the unified country in the bloodshed and genocide of the Balkan wars. It is primarily the story of two friends, Marko (Miki Manojlovic) and Blacky (Lazar Ristovski), who start out as black marketeers providing weapons to the anti-fascist resistance, even as they become embroiled in a love triangle over the actress Natalija (Mirjana Jokovic), who they both adore. The film's allegorical structure becomes readily apparent when the war ends, and Marko becomes a prominent figure in Yugoslavia's new Communist government, while keeping Blacky and many of their other friends hidden in an underground bunker, unaware that the war against Germany has ended. It's an obvious metaphor for the deceit and manipulation rampant in Yugoslavia under Communism, with the common people kept in the dark while the party leadership enriched themselves and gorged on power.
With such weighty themes threading through the film, one would expect it to be a heavy and ponderous experience, especially considering its nearly three-hour running time. Rather, it is surprisingly light on its feet, with a boisterous spirit and a comic exuberance that only begins to falter when the film takes a turn into horrifying darkness for its final act, mirroring Yugoslavia's descent into the scourging fire of ethnic war. Before this bracing coda, the film is often darkly hilarious even at its saddest or most violent moments. Blacky, a fun-loving soul with a generous heart and a prodigious capacity for celebration, often drafts a full marching band into following him around everywhere he goes. The film is propelled by the pulse of the region's music, a constant ba-bum-bum-bum rhythm emanating from the ever-present horn section. Underground is a joyous, celebratory, delirious satire that traces a country's history in the overblown, comic saga of a pair of friends whose story reflects the larger struggles of their nation.