“A war is no war until brother kills brother.” This is just one of the devastating conclusions of Emir Kusturica’s bold and brilliant Underground; his lurid, comically absurd, and deeply divisive parable about the death of Yugoslavia. Kusturica was paraded as Fellini’s heir for his exuberant style, but there is more an echo of Andrzej Wajda’s Wedding in the drunken nationalistic revelry that consumes this epic tale of betrayal and mutual-destruction which has enraged as many as it has enamoured. One thing is for sure, Underground is bravura filmmaking at its most entrancing and its labyrinthine political context only serves to heighten its fascinating appeal.
Split into three distinct chapters titled 1. The War, 2. The Cold War, and 3. The War, the film spans the period from the Nazi invasion of Belgrade through to the middle of the Bosnian War. Intertwined throughout this period are the lives of friends Marko (Predrag Manojlovic) and Blacky (Lazar Ristovski) and their seriocomic misadventures through even the darkest of times. Both pursue the affections of the beautiful actress Natalija (Mirjana Jokovic), Marko fools Blacky and a number of others into taking shelter in his grandfather’s cellar. When the war ends soon after, he lets them believe it rages on, meanwhile he marries Natalija and sells the munitions his friends make in the subterranean factory thinking their aiding the war effort when in fact they are funding his rise through the ranks of the Communist Party. In the burly Blacky lies parochial tradition and socialism, and in the pragmatic Marko a more opportunistic capitalism.
To many of the films detractors, these two characters are deemed to be specifically Serbian images of traditional Yugoslav heroism; a fact that becomes all the more problematic with the wider knowledge that Kusturica has gained a public reputation as an apologist for Serbian atrocities committed against the people of his own hometown of Sarajevo. Some read the cycle of violence that leads to the Balkan war as being the product of the Yugoslav tendency towards crazed frenzy, exacerbated by the constant presence of a brass band following Marko and Blacky around on their surrealist escapades. In addition, while Western audiences may hardly notice, the archive footage of the Nazi invasion suggests the enemy being welcomed in Zagreb (Croatia) and Maribor (Slovenia) while Belgrade had to be shelled to smithereens to surrender. It’s hard to refute these claims particularly when the director now identifies and Serbian, but equally there seems to be a lot happening in Underground.
The character of Marko is as vile as he is successful, while the incredible imagery of his eventual demise does little to empathy for his sociopathy. While the film’s broader vision of a Yugoslavian ideal may provoke scorn, the final scene – which initially seems to be a positive and hopeful denouement – can equally be read as bleak. A repetition of the ‘wedding’ scenes that have appeared in the first and second parts, it ostensibly seems to be a happy occasion, unlike the previous two. However, even as lovers separated by death are reunited, bickering and infighting remain as their shindig drift away down the Danube. It’s a fittingly conflicted conclusion to a film so rife with them and another loose thread in this brash political allegory.
Ben Nicholson | @BRNicholson