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Weird Warfare: Emir Kusturica’s Underground (1995) – Blu-ray review

February 23, 2016 by Simon Kinnear in At Home, Retro with 0 Comments

Still controversial, but two decades on – and especially if viewed hundreds of miles from the conflict it depicts – the dark irony of Kusturica’s artistry shines through.

1 Underground

(Emir Kusturica, 1995)

The thing that stays with you when watching Underground is the music. How can it not? The exuberant panache of the band that actually performs on-screen for much of the running time (at one point, spinning around on a mechanical wedding cake) comes to define Emir Kusturica’s film. The big question is what they’re playing: is this a celebration, or a wake?

Underground is a hugely controversial film; a genuinely thorny and difficult one to unpack. Kusturica wanted to tell a story about Yugoslavia, but did so as the country unravelled into horrific warfare while being funded by the nation-state commonly held to be the conflict’s aggressor. Two decades on, it’s easier to separate the art from the context but, even so, this is a film that angers many.

Is it, as many claim, propaganda? It’s easy to see why. In Kusturica’s bold, allegorical recasting of history, Yugoslavia slides from one war – World War II – to another – the 1990s civil war, with certain characters oblivious, because they’ve been trapped underground during the interim. In doing so, that implicitly lays the blame on ‘others’ – mysterious invaders determined to break apart Yugoslavia’s traditions.

But the film is so surreal, and so mercurial in its mood shifts, that it’s certainly possible to make a counter-argument. After all, Kusturica’s ‘heroes’ are con men and criminals, whose gun-running seems motivated as much by self-interest as by politics. During the film’s mid-section, Marko betrays his best friend and his brother, making them work for him in secret while he receives the perks of the Communist top brass – a fairly ironic stance if this is meant to be a nationalist tract.

In short, here’s a film in which the truth is always out of reach, because the characters are too parochial in their worldview to notice. Daringly, Kusturica creates a subplot in which Marko’s earlier exploits are filmed as actual propaganda, with the facts distorted and the reality confused by casting the same actors as their film-within-a-film avatars. No wonder when Blacky emerges from his isolation, he can’t tell reality from fiction. So, later, when he says he’s fighting for his country, he doesn’t actually know who the enemy is or why he’s fighting.

In short: Kusturica was naïve and disingenuous to make this film under the circumstances he did. But the controversy lies chiefly in the fact that it is very, very good: original, complex and made with a bracing energy that leaves most directors looking lazy. The Palme D’Or winning version, despite being nearly three hours long, is roughly half the length of the director’s preferred TV cut – included here as an extra. The sense is overwhelming that he’s edited the most manic set-pieces, so the film has a combustible momentum, propelled by the music and by Kusturica’s directorial intensity. He stages moments of unbelievable dexterity, notably in the central wedding sequence. But even a supposedly simple shot of a couple dancing is turned into a balletic long take, spinning around 360 degrees while walls shake, pictures fall and dust sprays under the impact of the room being bombed.

Even within this exhausting mood, Kusturica still manages to shift the emphasis in the closing sequences, which have a haunting, hallucinatory power. These characters have stayed underground too long; they now no longer have the strength to influence events on the surface – so instead, they retreat back to the party, the music now sounding like a particularly upbeat purgatory. Whatever conclusions you read into that ending, it’s a fabulous piece of movie-making that wrings every possibility out of the medium.

Underground is released on Blu-ray on Monday 29th February. The highlight of this BFI set is a very lucid essay booklet, which helps to frame the arguments that have raged around this film since its release.

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