Thursday 17 September 2020

1,001 Films: "Underground" (1995)

Emir Kusturica's 1995 Palme d'Or winner Underground replays the history of the former Yugoslavia, then just broken up into its constituent states, as wild, funny, cacophonous, seemingly never-ending farce. It opens in 1941, just as the Nazis marched into town, with the story of two brothers: roguish marketeer Blacky (Lazar Ristovski) operates on instinct, while Communist Party apparatchik Marko (Miki Manojlovic) constitutes the brains of the family. This is a fairly familiar fraternal split - "the two of you could make one good man," observes Natalija (Mirjana Jokovic), the actress who comes between them - but together the brothers run the resistance movement, shuffling through the tunnels beneath the streets of Belgrade, where they've stashed the city's Jewish population. In the years following the War, Marko rises to become a key political player, while keeping Blacky - whose girl and status Marko has stolen - in the dark by insisting the conflict is still ongoing. To achieve this end, Marko fakes air raid sirens, and installs a camera in the floor of his house to monitor what's going on beneath his feet; but Marko eventually makes a break for it overground, coming out fighting like those fabled Japanese soldiers who emerged from their bunkers long after WW2 had ended. And that's only the half of it.

Never one for restraint, Kusturica here establishes what was to be a signature style with Marko's instructions to the underground's resident brass band as he initiates a bar brawl: "faster and louder". Underground is all setpieces, with only a menagerie of barnyard animals and that horn section to obscure the fact and hustle things along from one crazed tableau to the next. At one point, Marko opens up a trap door and emerges in an asylum, and there's not a huge difference between this scene and any other in the movie. When a grenade goes off at close range, Blacky pops out of the smoke cloud with his face blackened and hair askew, like a cartoon character. The sight of a man kneecapping himself has its potency undermined somewhat for being intercut with images of a chimp in a tank. Of all the aesthetics that developed amid the European cinema of the 1990s, Kusturica's was up there as amongst the most acquired of tastes: you may come away from Underground never wanting to hear another tuba or French horn again. Personally, I've always found Kusturica's excess wearying over the long haul - and three hours of Underground is probably more than enough - but individual bits are nothing short of inspired. Take the scene halfway through where Marko and Natalija, happily ensconced in power, visit the set of a historical drama recreating the events of Kusturica's first hour, where the same actors also turn up playing the fictionalised Marko-and-Natalija in the film-within-the-film. The payoff is that this film's actors-in-Nazi-costume are the first people Blacky sees upon emerging from the depths, thus confirming his belief that the War has continued unabated. It can seem more and less complex, but the moral of Underground is that, one way or another, history is almost always repeating itself somewhere in the world.

Underground is available on Blu-Ray via the BFI.

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