Saturday, February 27, 2016
Emir Kusturica's UNDERGROUND (1995)
I read in the IMDb trivia for Emir Kusturica's Palm D'or winner Underground that Serbian critics denounced the film, and specifically the filmmaker was trying to call for a united Yugoslavia - something that likely wouldn't be able to happen after so many years, decades, of bloodshed with a nation torn apart. There really isn't a Yugoslavia anymore, not in the way that people who were there during World War 2 saw it, and yet I don't know exactly how strongly Kusturica really means to make this message. The film is so many things - a pitch black comedy that is as broad as a Mel Brooks comedy, or the wonkier parts of Inglourious Basterds; a serio-comic would-be romance (maybe a love-triangle, sort of, not really) between a delusional and uber heroic arms-man named Blacky and an 'intellectual' of sorts named Marko and the woman they've plucked right off stage (Nataljia); a carnival-esque atmosphere (chimpanzee included) in satirizing holding on to the past, on a personal level more than anything else - but it's not naive in the way the critics thought.
I should add that I don't have a lot of background knowledge about the fall of Yugoslavia; that may be one of those parts of history I should have learned, or was left out of the WW2 classes in school. But what is before me is kind of like a delirious history lesson - if Fellini's Satyricon is his own comic-book version of what happened in the Roman times, this is like Kustirica doing a grand, epic graphic-novel about people who became part of the fringes in the second world war (and decades later, as the Cold War was upon the country and region in Europe).
And yet were still very much emblematic of what people in the country hoped for or wanted. For one thing, the Germans bombing was a hazard, and you get the tone right off the bat for this movie as bombs fall (this is before the couple dozen or so people of this village all go underground into their bunker), and Blacky reacts to a fallen light fixture in his home by biting into the electrical wire (Ristovski is Blacky in a performance for the ages, fiery, alive, comically volcanic and dramatic when he needs to be).
How broad does this get? More than many Cannes Golden Palm winners, I'd wager. Kusturica is not out to be subtle in the slightest, and when a director goes for broke it behooves one to not do things small. So here camera movements are often roving around or not stopping, and when a character like Blacky is caught and being tortured by the Germans even *that* has humor to it. This is at times surreal in a way that I'm sure would've pleased Bunuel; one of the highlights of the film (for me, among many) is when Blacky and Marko meet the (then) actress Natalja for the first time as she performs on stage for German officers. There's this sense already, following so many scenes of Marko and Blacky getting into shenanigans like something dangerous can happen - and it does, as Blacky takes the stage, "improvises" some acting with the people on stage (which the audience thinks is part of the show), and ends his tying up the actress bit with shooting the main officer in the audience. Uh-oh.
When I say there's an element of danger to the film, I mean that there's such a sense that anything can happen that it's not a surprise that some critics and audiences can't take it. It may be too much. It's abrasive and in your face in a way not unlike if Terry Gilliam had grown up in that part of the world and made a movie about growing up in search of something. What is the 'search'? For freedom, to be sure, at first from German bombardment in the war, of being a tortured subject, of an ideology, and in search of something else like, for Marko (who becomes in the 60's a poet of a sort, by that I mean not very good), love.
A key question might be why Marko, in the outside world when the story jumps ahead 20 years into the 60's, tells those in the underground bunker that the war is still going on and everyone just believes him. Well, if you got someone like Blacky down there, why not? Or even more complicated, up in the "real world" Blacky is decorated as a slain war hero, and a film about his life is put into production. You don't know the term "wackiness ensues" until you see what happens when Blacky emerges to the surface with his grown son to see himself (!) on set along with a Nazi who he must shoot (double!) The answer to that question is... it's a movie, and at times it should be a movie within a movie that folds in on itself. Its self-awareness is part of the point of its political aims of upsetting the established order of cinema as well as life.
Underground is a head-trip, a wild ride, and yet I was laughing through most of it. I clicked into the rhythm that Kusturica is after, which is a sense of total abandon, and yet because the comedy is so dark it becomes funny not due to the conditions they're in but how they react to it; I don't know if there's a funnier world war 2 movie outside of To Be or Not To Be, but then this is only the first third of this almost 3 hour epic (sort of, and apparently the director's cut is *double* the length!)
It's a performance she throws herself into much like the director does with the entire production. I find that the passion and forward momentum of the scenes (a wedding sequence makes The Deer Hunter look like kids stuff for example) is mostly what goes past any stodgy nationalist criticisms. This is the kind of art that burns a village down while making you howl with harrowing hysterics at the same time.
PPS: The soundtrack by Goran Bregovic is fucking phenomenal (this is "inspired by", but trust me, the horns are a close approximation to what you'd get here):