Comedy can be one of the most powerful tools for examining some of life's more horrific themes. In "Slaughterhouse 5" and "Catch 22" Kurt Vonneget and Joseph Heller examined the horrors of war through the ironic use of absurdist comedy. While George Roy Hill was successful in translating "Slaughterhouse 5" to the screen, Mike Nichols' film version of "Catch 22" is proof that it isn't always easy to walk this thin line. I just saw Emir Kusturica's outrageous "Underground" and am pleased to report that it stands proud and tall as a hilarious and touching indictment of man's inhumanity to man. Winner of the Palm d' Or at Cannes in 1995, "Underground" chronicles the lives of two scoundrels, Petar Popara Crni, aka "Blacky" (Lazar Ristovski) and Marko (Miki Manojlovic) as they live, love, fight and fornicate their way through 50 years of turmoil in Yugoslavia. The film examines the beliefs and underlying motives of Blacky and Marko. In doing so, Kusturica paints a portrait of humanity which rings true no matter what system of government you may live under. It helps to have an understanding of Yugoslavian history, but it isn't necessary as Kursturica is more interested exploring in human nature rather than communist tenets.
Kusturica's film is a hilarious, sensual 167 minute epic told in three acts. Act One and Three are both entitled "The War" while Act Two is entitled "The Cold War." Each act has a unique, self contained storyline which makes its own points, however all three acts are interlinked in theme and characters. Marko is a thin, wiry, Harold Ramis looking guy. Blacky is more of a robust, macho, Robert Shaw in "Jaws" kind of guy. The intellectually superior Marko idolizes and uses the wild and reckless Blacky. While Blacky believes that he and Marko are partners in all of their escapades, that is not the truth. Marko is a manipulator, but he does love his friend. Unlike Blacky, Marko uses his association with the communists as a way to gain money and power. Blacky sees the communists as a means to an end. He wants to get rid of what he fondly refers to throughout the movie as "Fascist Mother F***ers!"
The film opens in 1941. Marko and Blacky are drunk. The two return home from a drunken celebration in which Marko has persuaded Blacky to join Tito's communist party. Their horse cart is followed by a brass band which runs after them playing a jumpy little tune while dodging bullets that Blacky fires at them in his drunken state. This band has some symbolic purpose, which I can't quite fathom. They are Marko and Blacky's friends, and follow them throughout the movie. It is kind of like having your own theme music in real life. A part of me thinks this would be kinda cool. Anyway, as the two finally make their way home, we meet several of the main characters. The first is Ivan (Slavko Stimac), Marko's stuttering little brother. Ivan is a zookeeper who lives with a menagerie in his house. Ivan is the films purest character. He loves his family and is in tune with the natural world. With war on the horizon, he is in for the biggest dose of emotional trauma. Next we meet Vera (Mirjana Karanovic) Blacky's long suffering wife. She berates her husband for staying out all night with Marko. She warns Blacky that he may very well end up like Marko (divorced) if he continues to follow his friend's example. Marko leaves Blacky to return to his home. He stops to pick up a Rubenesque prostitute. It you ever wondered what a fat prostitute bending over washing her legs with a flower stuck in her butt crack looked like, then this is the movie for you!
The next morning, the Germans bomb their city. Marko is having sex with the hooker. He seems bored with the encounter until the bombs start falling. At this point he really starts to enjoy himself. The hooker runs for cover, leaving the frustrated Marko to finish the deed himself. Across town, Vera is serving Blacky his breakfast. He continues to eat as the bombs fall, just to spite the Germans. These two scenes reveal one of the common threads that tie Marko and Blacky together. They both thrive on danger and are fearless in the face of death. In other words they are nuts. After finishing his meal he decides that this is a good time to sneak off to his mistress, Natalija (Mirjana Jokovic). Vera knows what he is up to, but Blacky denies it (what guy wouldn't). Natalija is a sexy blonde actress who uses her looks to survive. She has a love/hate relationship with Blacky. She is aroused and excited by him, but doesn't like the fact that he is married. She also realizes that the world is turned upside down, so she also has a relationship with the German officer Franz (Ernst Stötzner) to insure her survival along with that of her crippled brother. I wonder if the makers of "South Park" saw this movie as there is a great running gag which can be summed up by the line, "The Bastards! They killed Franz!"
The abovementioned scenes introduce the players. What follows is a long and twisted road in which each character's motives, hopes and desires lead them to their inevitable fates. The title "Underground" has many meanings. The obvious one refers to Marko and Blacky thriving as part of the underground which fights the Germans. There are more absurdist meanings which surface later in the film. Following World War II, Marko becomes a power in Tito's regime. Somehow, and this is never fully explained, Marko convinces Blacky and a multitude of others that the war isn't over, and that they must stay in the underground cavern, beneath Marko's house to build arms for the troops fighting above. (They stay underground for 20 years!) In reality, the powerful and trusted communist leader is really a war profiteer. He sells the arms produced by Blacky and the others and lives a decadent lifestyle with Blacky's old love Natalija. This twist almost made me turn the movie off as it was so absurd, but then I remembered that this was an absurdist comedy. My momentary discomfort soon subsided and the movie's magic took over again. It seems The third meaning, I believe refers to the character's hearts. Their selfish motives which draw them further apart from the humanistic truth which is powerfully hammered home in the movie's powerful and redemptive conclusion.
There are a multitude of wonderful scenes and set pieces. I enjoyed hearing a Slavic version of Leo Dorsey's "Ya Ya" on the soundtrack as Marko and Natalija dance in their living room while Marko watches Blacky and the others below through a periscope. There is a very sensual and oral scene between Marko and Natalija as she hangs from the chandelier. The scenes of Blacky stalking Franz are a real hoot. During the second act, there is a subplot concerning the making of a film version of Marko and Blacky's wartime exploits. It seems that Marko has made Blacky a national hero of the communist party by telling stories of his exploits and heroic "death." The actors playing the characters double as the "movie within a movie" actors playing the same characters. This twist is amusing as the actors thrive in these duel roles. There are several scenes in which characters die and are later joined by another who has died. These scenes are beautiful in their symbolism and execution. Kursturica has one of the best cinematic eyes that I have ever been privileged to witness. He takes a potentially unfilmable story and embues it with rich, silky imagery and powerful humanity, all the while amusing the audience with his light touch. Kursturica has a serious message to deliver and he does not make the mistake of letting the message drive the movie. He weaves his magical story and the message is just icing on the cake.
The performances are excellent. The chemistry between Miki Manojlovic and Lazar Ristovski as Marko and Blacky works as well as the best of the best of numerous American "buddy films." They could just as well be Robert Redford and Paul Newman as Butch and Sundance. Miki Manojlovic has the most to do as Marko is the most complex character in the film. His sweaty charm, and "you really can't hate me even though I'm a cad" personality makes Marko one of the screens more memorable characters. On the other hand, Lazar Ristovski's Blacky is a big bear of a man who has a lust for life that knows no bounds. There is nothing he wouldn't do for a friend, including that most difficult of human tasks, to forgive. I especially enjoyed Ristovski as the actor playing Blacky in the "movie within a movie." He is the total opposite of the "real" Blacky. Mirjana Jokovic delivers a finely tuned and sexy performance as Natalija, the woman loved by almost every male character in the movie. She has the ability to make the men want her even though her only motive for living is to get what she wants when she wants it. She is a seductress without equal. I enjoyed getting to know all of these characters. I highly recommend that you take the time to get to know them also.
I spoke to my old high school friend, Bruce Ingram about this movie. Bruce is a film critic in Chicago who has worked for Variety and currently is critic for Pioneer Press. He told me that he didn't understand the ending. That he had spoken with a Serbian friend of his who said that you had to have some understanding of the troubles in Serbia to get the ending. I disagreed with him whole heartedly. The ending is a powerful essay of human truth. If Kursturica is preaching at any point in the movie, it is during this last scene. Maybe preaching is the wrong word. When Ivan turns to the camera and speaks directly to the audience, Kursturica cuts to the bone. Powerful stuff.