Reviewed Mar 09, 2012
A Serbian film about 50 years of Balkan history. Sounds dull, eh? WRONG!!
Underground is an bacchanalian circus of a movie powered by an irresistible mixture of slapstick comedy, the joyous energy of a traditional gypsy brass band, and the wildly entertaining relationship between two larger-than-life best friends, Blacky and Marko, and the woman they both love - their personal betrayals serving as metaphor for Yugoslavian civil strife (probably!). Everyone seems to be constantly drinking and getting pissed with the plot unfolding as if documenting one never-ending street party.
If that sounds like hyperbole - it's not. It's a pretty accurate description of a pretty unique film. I've watched hundreds of foreign language films and admittedly struggled with many, but for me this movie delivers a wild ride which honestly doesn't demand that much of you. Others may disagree. It is a complex and unusual film - but funny and crazed at the same time.
There is some serious commentary going on about the nature of living under a communist dictatorship (i.e. it is akin to living in an underground bunker), disintegration of national identity and the general horror of war. Not much of this is done overtly - points are made via the personal relationships/betrayals of the characters. Much of the movie is an allegory for what happened to Yugoslavia in director Emir Kusturica's eyes. But when these issues are overtly referenced, particularly in the finale, the genius of this film and its claim to be a work of art is immediately apparent. The mood changes from carnival to tragedy and the resulting poignancy is breathtaking.
But, hey, I don't want to put anyone off! Generally speaking this is a total blast. Professional critics have argued about a pro-Serbian bias in this film, but I don't see it. I'm probably not sufficiently educated or versed in Balkan history - but I don't think you have to be in order to get a huge kick from this film. Here's a quick plot summary (no spoilers):
The movie is formed of three parts: Part 1 set in WW2; Part 2 Cold War 1961 and Part 3 Civil War of 1992. In 1941, two drunken profiteers, Marko and Blacky celebrate their latest caper - the theft of a government arms shipment - accompanied by the raucous gypsy band. However, the following morning Belgrade is bombed by Allied troops and the two opportunists are identified as Communist insurgents. Facing the uncertainty of war and possible arrest, Marko decides to seek refuge at his grandfather's large cellar with his brother, Blacky, and Blacky's pregnant wife and others.
Blacky is separated from his mistress, an actress named Natalija, and after spending several years apart kidnaps her on-stage and attempts to kill her lover, a German officer named Franz. The plan goes awry when Natalija refuses to resume their relationship, and Blacky is captured and interrogated by the Germans. Marko surfaces through an elaborate series of underground passages and emerges at a hospital to successfully rescue Blacky, but an accident with a hand grenade leaves Blacky severely injured and confined to the cellar to recuperate.
Shut out of the outside world and solely reliant on Marko's reports of the war's progress, Blacky is oblivious to the profound changes sweeping Yugoslavia. Marko exploits Blacky's dependence to fabricate stories of a protracted war in order to profit from the free labor offered by the underground workers. By 1961, Marko's betrayal of his friend begins to enter dangerous territory...
I've never seen lowbrow and arthouse values combined to such amazing and original effect in a film.