emir kusturica

Film Review: A Bosnian War epic emerges from “Underground”

Director Emir Kusturica's 1995 Cannes award-winner resurfaces in a restored edition

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.

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