One of the most fascinating films of the 1990s returns to the big screen this week in Portland when Cinema 21 hosts a restored version of director Emir Kusturica’s 1995 historical fantasia “Underground.” The movie was a cinematic event when it won the top prize at the Cannes Film Festival 23 years ago, and it remains one today, both on its own terms and as a reminder of the conflict that shook the Balkan region during the first half of the decade.
The Bosnian War that raged from 1992 to 1995 claimed somewhere around 100,000 lives and resulted in the displacement of over two million people, and saw genocide practiced in Europe on a scale not seen since World War II. It was precipitated by the breakup of Yugoslavia following the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the existential re-evaluation of national and ethnic identities it laid bare was one of the most significant immediate consequence of the end of the Cold War.
It’s only natural, then, that more than a few memorable, harrowing films emerged from the region in the years during and following the strife. Bosnian director Danis Tanović’s “No Man’s Land” won the 2001 Academy Award for Best Foreign Film, while Serbian filmmaker Srđan Dragojević crafted pitch-black comedy from the horror in 1996’s “Pretty Village, Pretty Flame.” Hollywood’s efforts included Angelina Jolie’s feature directing debut, “In the Land of Blood and Honey,” as well as Michael Winterbottom’s “Welcome to Sarajevo.”
But the most epic, memorable and problematic screen treatment of the dissolution of Yugoslavia was “Underground,” which may have been more appropriately titled in its five-episode television cut, “Once Upon a Time There Was a Country.” The version that won at Cannes and cemented Kusturica’s status as a global auteur is less than three hours, but it’s still a sprawling piece of quasi-nationalist mythmaking that follows the fates of two friends over five decades on a surreal historical roller coaster.
The saga begins on April 6, 1941, the date that the Nazi invasion of the Balkans began with an aerial assault of Belgrade. Two brothers, Marko (Miki Manojlovic) and Blacky (Lazar Ristovski) are caught up in the chaos, which includes zoo animals freed by bomb blasts wandering the rubble-strewn streets of the city. Marko’s mustache is pencil-thin, while Blacky’s is bushy, but both embody a particular brand of machismo—hearty, hard-drinking, and proud, charming but incurably misogynistic.
As World War II rages on, the hedonistic, amoral chums, both criminally inclined, become involved in selling arms, stolen from the Germans, to Communist partisans. They also both become obsessed with Natalija (Mirjana Jokovic), a popular stage actress who’s also pursued by an Wehrmacht officer named Franz (Ernst Stötzner). Blacky’s pregnant wife Vera is understandably outraged at her husband’s infidelities.
The central, surreal metaphor of “Underground” takes shape when a group of Serbian civilians, including Blacky’s wife, are rescued by Marko from a prison camp and shepherded into a hidden subterranean bunker. Next thing you know, it’s 1944, and Blacky, despite having a three-year-old son in hiding, hatches a plan to marry Natalija that results in him being stuffed inside a trunk when a grenade goes off in it. He survives, kayoed and soot-covered—Blacky’s cartoonish indestructibility is a running gag—but gets stowed in the same cellar, while Marko begins his rise in the eventually ascendant Communist hierarchy.
That’s just the first act, though. Marko decides, once the war is over, to maintain the illusion that it’s still going on, convincing Blacky and the others to continue producing illicit weapons.
“Underground” was Kusturica’s fifth theatrical feature, and his second to win the top prize at Cannes, after 1989’s “Time of the Gypsies,” making him, at that time, only the fourth two-time Palm D’Or honoree. His debut, 1981’s “Do You Remember Dolly Bell?,” a poignant but conventional coming-of-age story, has been released on DVD in the U.S. “When Father Was Away on Business,” from 1985, took place in post-World War II Yugoslavia and also had a juvenile point of view. Kusturica’s only American-produced film, and the most unexpected item on his resume, is 1993’s “Arizona Dream,” which starred Johnny Depp, Faye Dunaway, and Jerry Lewis, and which Roger Ebert called “goofier than hell.” It was shot in 1991 and was released to a grand total of three theaters in 1994, later becoming—no surprise—a cult item on home video.
The release of “Underground” was not without controversy. The film was seen in some corners as an apology for the same Serbian nationalism that resulted in the siege of Sarajevo and the atrocities, including mass rape, committed against the innocent civilians of Srebrenica and other Bosnian cities. Kusturica’s unwillingness to back down in the face of criticism hasn’t helped. “Underground” was partially financed by the Serbian government of convicted war criminal Slobodan Milosevic, and Kusturica sued for slander a reporter who accused him of betraying his Bosnian heritage. (The original verdict in Kusturica’s favor was overturned on appeal.) He’s also expressed admiration for Vladimir Putin and has a tendency to spout forth in a way that’s reminiscent of other middle-aged “bad boys” such as Lars Von Trier and Nicolas Winding Refn.
After “Underground,” Kusturica had another international success in 1998 with “Black Cat, White Cat,” but after that, for whatever reason, his films have failed to secure American distribution. I saw his documentary “Super 8 Stories,” about the band No Smoking Orchestra, at the Portland International Film Festival, but it hasn’t been released on home video and isn’t available to stream online. The same can be said for his more recent narrative features, including 2004’s “Life Is a Miracle,” for which Kusturica had an entire village constructed. He currently lives in Drvengrad (also known as Kustendorf) and has hosted an annual film and music festival there since 2008. His latest effort, “On the Milky Road,” premiered at the 2016 Venice Film Festival but doesn’t appear to have screened in the U.S. even once.
Kusturica’s newer work has been hard, if not impossible, to come by in this country, and some of his older films remain frustratingly elusive: neither “Black Cat, White Cat” nor “Arizona Dream” has never been released on Region 1 DVD or Blu-ray, though both are available to stream through Amazon. Maybe this re-release of “Underground” portends a resurgence of interest, though. In addition to theatrical dates, the film has been granted a deluxe Blu-ray release that includes both cuts, a feature-length making-of documentary, and other supplemental material. It’s a worthy treatment for a landmark film from a forgotten member of the European art-film pantheon.
(“Underground” opens Friday, April 13 at Cinema 21)
PS: Here’s the (very long) trailer for “Arizona Dream”: