Underground

Underground ★★★★★

Arizona Dream, as wistful and curious about Western Civilization as it was, proved to be an incredibly unhealthy and fruitless endeavor for Emir Kusturica, as it resulted in the director suffering a debilitating nervous breakdown (many reasons could be at hand here, but one frequent explanation was the persistence of its American and French investors gradually losing their faith in the project) and its disastrous box office results meant it'd be best if Kusturica stayed at his home country for the foreseeable future. The chance to recuperate, however, was challenged by the fact that Yugoslavia, the multi-region country Kusturica previously championed as his heritage, erupted in political tension and insurgences for independence, killing Yugoslavia as a federation in 1992 and driving the country into a battered and beaten enough condition that its slim chances for continued existence decreased year by year. War and endless conflict, naturally, was on Kusturica's mind a lot once he returned, and this spurred emotions of nostalgia and self-criticism that he channeled into a sweeping epic with contributions by famed playwright/screenwriter Dušan Kovačević (and by that I mean Kusturica took the premise of one of Kovačević's plays and just rolled with new themes, metaphors, and absurdism reflective of current sentiments). Underground was filmed on-and-off during the Bosnian War, when ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity could rage on just a few miles away from filming locations, and received high praise (netting Kusturica a second Palme D'or) and controversy so severe that it nearly killed his career (accusations of taking money from the Serbian Broadcast Corporation and wasting it on romanticizing Yugoslavia's communist regime, neither of which would be the case). Today it is his unmatched masterpiece, a brazenly surreal and pungently allegorical dive through Yugoslavian history and the self-destructive lunacy that forges an action as frivolous as war.

The arduous epic stems three monumental wars, grounded with the rapscallion nature of war profiteers Marko and Blacky as they bicker over a newfound maiden and soldier on with different understandings of a war that's ceased to exist. Kusturica's sophisticated social commentary rests on Yugoslavia's corruption and manipulation, leaving the common people in the dark while party leaders gorge themselves with power and wealth, slowly destroying itself through the exploitation of its smaller proletariat populous and evaluating every single human facet and trait that led to its inevitable disintegration, factors that transcend the political spectrum and instead fall into the flawed, incisive reactions of those stumbling into a web of lies and deception as notorious as the art of war. Marko and Blacky's relationship and tensions behave like a microcosm of the conflict between Serbia and Bosnia, and the love triangle between them allow each ignition point of political warfare to flare up, Marko fighting for a cause solely to personally thrive, Blacky too obsessed with what they preach to see the bigger picture of reality that surrounds their insular fights, and actress/love interest Natalija supporting those within power and changing her beliefs and mind depending on which side has the upper advantage and which will ruin her heart less. Even if one exhibits total unawareness of Yugoslavian history (like I did 3 hours ago), it's not hard to see just how vivid its vision is regarding the seismic consequences when it comes to betrayal, either to a person or a conglomerate identifiable as "the people", and the broken land falls apart solely because of how many broken people live on it, enduring and finding joy in life all the same, yet with naive bliss regarding their habits of destruction.

Kusturica's serious political themes, however, are contrasted by the lowbrow farcical energy it chooses to relay these ideas in, fully believing that if an entire country decides to go to Hell in a handbasket, might as well make it the most robust, absurd, and eye-catching handbasket possible. The boisterous spirit of 5/6ths of the film is a loony carnival ride through Yugoslavia under Nazi occupation and communist rule, pumping along to the tunes of a brass band that inexplicably likes to appear a lot in order to liven things up, and it turns what would be disturbing material into a celebration of survival, an ironic sense of joy and colorful anarchism to offset the larger struggles of the country at hand, sensing that war itself is an insane act fueled by mania and thus responding with characters wilder, madder, and more gonzo than that of an average war film, treating tragedy like a comedy since, let's face it, with a booze-swirling aerial-gun-shootin' freak like Blacky and oversexed high heel fetishist Marko, tragedy would have befallen on them sooner rather than later. Kusturica's energy, however, knows when to slow things down for the sake of his characters working through their turmoil, and even stops his farcical impression when the time comes to show just how nightmarish and frightening true war really is, but its boldness of having something as horrific as a zoo bombing make way for a gag where an elephant steals shoes makes itself easier to digest than the usual European art film, letting people try to catch up with the ride and think about the more important details once they've got their bearings straight.

A tale like Underground knows how to be timeless, it's inherently rooted in the then-current Yugoslavian wars yet its presentation makes itself applicable to any war environment, acknowledging that political fuckery and strained conflict is something that just cannot end resolutely (ironic given that it has one of the best, or at least most memorable, endings of the 90's), and its passion to reconstruct history as exuberantly entertaining makes for an easy draw to get people in the door while also relaying just how frayed and strange Kusturica's own self-admitted politics lie in relation to his nationalism for doomed case like Yugoslavia. Goran Bregović's score is also a huge assistant to the mania that I can't help highlighting, it topples, teems, and booms with infectious brass melodies I adored each time they showed up (especially its main theme "Kalašnjikov", it's delectably unhinged end encapsulates the chaotic comedy to a T). A well-earned stroke of mastery, it's truly dazzling as a trip and as an exploration into humanistic deception and downfall.

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