Emir Kusturica since the early ’80s has remained one of the most singular voices in World Cinema. Underground is a surrealist war epic that had Kusturica being proclaimed the Serbian heir of Fellini though the lens of Fellini’s other cinematic child Terry Gilliam. Underground won the prestigious Palme d’Or at the Cannes film festival and to this day the film remains controversial on political lines. It also made Kusturica one of an exclusive number of directors to have won the award twice.
The film is split up in parts, the first segment is the WW2, the second is the Cold War and the final and most surreal segment is set in then current Yugoslav Wars. The film follows two friends Marko (Predrag Manojlovic) and Blacky (Lazar Ristovski) throughout the years who are also in love with the same woman. During the outbreak of WW2 Blacky and others hide out in a cellar and Marko tricks them into believing it’s the war is going above their heads. Blacky remains a staunch communist but Marko schemes his way into becoming an arch capitalist which is perfectly captured in surreal fashion when he is brooking an arms deal in the midst of a war zone in the final segment.
The film on a simple aesthetically level is astonishing, if you like Fellini, Terry Gilliam or Jean-Pierre Jeunet you will feel like you’ve found a kindred spirit. The set design of the cellar recalls the underground dwellings of Delicatessen and has the used look that much of Gilliam’s science fiction has but within a historical setting. It’s stunning design work would become a hallmark of Kusturica’s work, he now lives in a town he built for his film Life Is a Miracle. Kusturica also wears his magical realist credentials on his sleeve when the film opens with “Once upon a time there was a country…”
The politics of the film are both decidedly left-wing and right-wing much like Kusturica’s own complicated political views. Kusturica was considered a Bosnian Muslim by many and during the Yugoslav Wars (which is when the film was made) he converted to a form of Orthdox Christianity. He declared himself Serbian which the Bosnians felt was a betrayal and has since became somewhat of a Serb Nationalist. However his films show corruption on both sides of the political and religious spectrum and Underground is also fundamentally a anti-war film.
Underground remains a somewhat forgotten masterpiece of world cinema. It’s got a magical realist bent that makes the horror of the film palatable but without going into sentimentality. The politics may at times be confused and the characters are perhaps too broadly written but despite all this it’s one of the most ambitiously carnivalesque films of the last few decades with only Terry Gilliam being a logical comparison. Few films have been made with such passion and it just oozes with the absurdities of life in all it’s facets. The discs include the longer TV version along with a making of documentary along with some interviews with cast and crew.