War, hot and cold, in ‘Underground’

UNDERGROUND, Miki Manojlovic, Mirjana Jokovic, Lazar Ristovski, 1995

Not every movie survives the baptism of time. Even award winners and those end-of-the-year Top Ten movies become buried under years of obsolescence. Which is why the restoration and re-release of a classic is always of note. Here is a work that refuses to slip into obscurity.

Underground, the 1995 Serbian satire from filmmaker Emir Kusturica, is the latest of these prescient classics to receive the 4K digital restoration treatment from Kino Lorber. Like all good classics, Underground has as much to say about today as it does about the time in which it was released, simply because Kusturica adheres to the old adage: History repeats itself, first as a tragedy, then as a farce.

Set in Yugoslavia and beginning in the 1940s, Underground tackles the horrors of Hitler’s invasion through sex, food and an ever-present Oom-pah band. The first of our players, Marko (Miki Manojlović), a man who will come to be a leader of sorts, has sex with a prostitute, climaxing while German bombs fall. Feeding another urge, his best friend, Blacky (Lazar Ristovski), takes no notice of those bombs as they turn his home into rubble; his focus is food. We’ll see this scene once more, this time in an underground bunker at the marriage of Blacky’s son, where a giant feast, Marko’s sexual predilections and the possible end of everything will once again intersect in a bizarre and comedic scene.

This underground bunker provides the setting for the second section of the film, Part Two: Cold War. Taking place during the early 1960s, Marko has led a band of Yugoslavians to start a new society below ground in an elaborate cellar so expansive it seems post-apocalyptic. All our characters from the surface have followed Marko underground, including his long-suffering wife, Natalija (Mirjana Joković), his stuttering brother (Slavko Štimac) and that ever-present Oom-pah band.

While Part One dealt with the fascist oppression of Yugoslavia, Part Two turns its attention to the communist rule with a “rose by any other name” dismissal. As one character muses, “Communism is a cellar.” To which the other replies, “The whole world is a cellar.”

In Kusturica’s eyes, it just might be. When Blacky and Marko make their way back to the surface, the movie jumps forward in time to the (then) present with Part Three: War. Yugoslavia is no more. Another war between the Serbs, Croats and Albanians rages, and both Blacky and Marko bring their disaffected attitudes to this new skirmish. They have survived the fascists and the communists, why should this battle give them pause?

For Kusturica, this section might be the most important — representing the futility of rebellion, the frustration of struggle and how they aren’t external forces of oppression but internal hatred expressed on grand levels. “It’s not a war until a brother kills a brother,” Marko exclaims in the movie’s most telling moment.

Like the best movies, Underground is less a re-enactment of historical events and more a fairy tale passed down from generation to generation: Once upon a time, there was a country… 

On the Bill: Underground. 7 p.m. Monday, Jan. 29, International Film Series, Muenzinger Auditorium, University of Colorado Boulder, internationalfilmseries.com


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