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Man is a selfish animal. No matter the political or social ideology, for some people eventually hedonism and narcissism will win over any other form of social loyalty. Underground, the 1995 Palme D'Or winner and Serbian auteur Emir Kusturica's absurdist masterpiece, starts with two Yugoslavian best friends, brute and blunt arms dealers Marko (Pregrag Manojlovic) and Blacky (Lazar Ristovsky) acting like the Roman emperors of old, drunk off their heads, carried by horses, followed by a marching band to hype their domination over their small universe, and having such little concern for the safety of those they deem to be below their status, that they use other people as target practice.
These are Fellini-esque caricatures to be sure, delivered by a director who was once internationally touted to be the great Italian helmer's second coming. Yet just like Fellini's characters, Kusturica infuses them with deep-seated satire that never lets them off the hook regarding their psychopathic behavior. That's why the epic three-hour story's seemingly abrupt tonal changes, from absurdist comedy to somber drama about the dissolution of Kusturica's home country, doesn't stick out the way that they could have under the supervision of a less intricate filmmaker. Kusturica shows us from the very beginning that the self-destructive behavior of his characters, and his country as a whole, can only end in tragedy.
Underground begins during the heat of the Second World War. After Germans invade Belgrade, Marko sets Blacky and his comrades up in an underground bunker below his house. The war eventually ends, and his communist party regains control, but there's one problem: Marko has started a relationship with beautiful actress Natalija (Mirjana Jokovic), who also happens to be a point of murderous obsession for Blacky. In order to keep this affair a secret, Marko decides to pretend that the war is still going on.
This ruse continues for two decades, the bunker turns into a fully functioning little town, full of willfully incarcerated citizens who think they're helping the war effort, but are actually being used as free labor for gun manufacturers. By keeping them in the dark, Marko not only assures his dominance over his friend, but manages to keep his comrades in the dark for his own benefit. I don't have merely enough space here to get into how deftly Kusturica uses the metaphor of the bunker as a symbol of oppression in the guise of patriotism.
Underground is a sprawling tale that offers many surprises along the way, only to end with a bizarre but perfectly fitting final shot. The specific political history of Yugoslavia might be unfamiliar to some viewers, but the film's unbounded energy and uniquely brazen yet strongly held vision about human fallacy turns it into one of the most socioeconomically relatable movies of 90s European cinema.
I own Underground's stateside DVD release from over a decade ago. It's muddy, soft, and rife with video noise. The new 1080p transfer is a huge improvement, and fans of the film are highly recommended to get their hands on it. The black levels are great, there's a healthy amount of grain, and we get an overall clean and crisp picture with very occasional scratches.
The disc comes with DTS-HD 5.1 and 2.0 options. One of Kusturica's most valuable partners in crime is musician Goran Bregovic, whose lively take on Balkan tunes drapes Underground with a spectacularly memorable soundtrack. The 5.1 option is best when experiencing the dynamic range and panning of the score, but the 2.0 track gets the job done as well.
Once Upon a Time There Was a Country: The 2 DVDs that come with the set contain all 6 hours of Kusturica's TV cut of Underground. This is a treat for fans, since it expands on various characters and sub-plots, even though I think the pacing of the theatrical version serves the story best. The SD quality if a bit soft and suffers from some aliasing issues, but it's a great addition nevertheless.
Shooting Days: An introspective one-hour documentary about the making of the film.
Behind the Scenes: 30 minutes of usual behind the scenes footage.
We also get a Trailer.
Growing up in Europe in the 90s, Kusturica was a big deal for film buffs. US cinephiles seem to not know as much about this great director, so it's very exciting to get such an expansive and delicately put together physical media set for perhaps his best film.
Oktay Ege Kozak is a film critic and screenwriter based in Portland, Oregon. He also writes for The Playlist, The Oregon Herald, and Beyazperde.com