Winner of the 1995 Cannes Film Festival's Palme D'Or,
Underground is director Emir Kusturica's fifty year spanning, epic love letter to Yugoslavia.
The film begins in Belgrade in 1941 where we are introduced to our dynamic duo of Marko (Miki Manojlovic) and Blacky (Lazar Ristovski), two manically energetic black-marketeers. As the Nazi occupation begins and the bombs fall, the two are relatively unphased. They are men who thrive in chaos and profit from panic, so explosions may ravage thier city but Blacky continues to eat his breakfast and Marko doesn't stop his lovemaking. The war just leads to better business for the two, and they set up an underground factory churning out weapons.
But after Blacky is injured, Marko decides to steal Blacky's woman, Natalija, and keep Blacky and their revolutionary family underground. Lead to believe that the Nazi's have won and it is too dangerous to surface, Blacky and crew stay underground for fifteen years making weapons, blissfully unaware that the old war is over and the Cold War has begun. On the surface, Marko has aligned himself with Tito and become a key figure of the revolution, weaving tales of his and Blacky's (who Marko claims is dead) selfless efforts to serve their country during the war.
Eventually some of the cellar dwellers escape and the betrayal is uncovered. The film moves ahead to 1992, where the characters continue to play a part in the ongoing struggles of their land, Yugoslavia or "the former Yugoslavia", a land that is always changing under the tides of war.
Time of Gypsies was my first discovery of Kusturica's deft take on the "magical realism" genre of cinema, and it is alive and well in Undergound, which takes a heady subject matter and paints it with darkness, life, energy, and dreamlike images into a surreal epic. Very few film makers are successful or even dare try this style that blends deadly serious subject matter with slapstick humor and dream logic. Blacky's capture and torture by the Nazi's almost resembles a Three Stooges movie, but such scenes, while light in tone, still bear the weight of the films serious premise.
Kusturica will leave you breathless. The film clips along with incredible life and vitality, a fire your guns in the air mentality all the while driving home an important lesson told in the most colorful way.
If I were to make any complaint, the films message about war is a relatively well acknowledged one, so despite the pace and energy, by the end it does feel a bit long-winded. But, it is a bit like being at a good carnival, you want to stay all day and go on the rides, eat all the saccharine greasy food you can, even if it leaves you exhausted and sick by mid-day. The film is the same way, even if the message is clear half and hour in, it is still worth the ride for the next two hours.
The DVD: New Yorker video
Picture: Anamorphic Widescreen. As much as I tend to love the films in New Yorker's selection, their transfers can often be less than stellar. Underground is a pleasant step up in quality. The print is relatively clean and free of any wear and the transfer satisfies. The film was shot with sepia tones, transporting the viewer into the war torn country and impressive underground set, so the color scheme has a brown to greenish tinge and the contrast is a tad less deep than usual. Sharpness details are good, and, once again a slightly grainy look is international and adds to the films appeal.
Sound: Dolby Digital Mono, Serbo-Croation with optional English subtitles. In keeping to the original, basic, mono track it doesn't come across as very impressive, but despite its lack of dynamics, it is more honest and true. Nothing really amazing, but the vocals are fine and Blacky's jubilant band comes through brassy and strong.
Extras: Chapter Selections— French trailer, plus trailers for other New Yorker releases.— Interview with director Emir Kusturica (3 mins). Disappointing. The interview was done with a somewhat distracted Kusturica at the party following the films premiere.
Conclusion: Fantastic movie, that sadly still remains relevant. Told in an imaginative style and with a transfer that, despite lacking extras, still pleases. Highly recommended to fans of foreign cinema.