Tuesday, 6 December 2011
#11 Serbia — Underground (1995)
This time, a Serbian film. But not A Serbian Film.
Why I chose this: Because watching and reviewing a film by a genius is much more fun, interesting and sanity-preserving than watching a baby get raped (as featured in A Serbian Film).
Emir Kusturica is among very few directors to have won two Palme D'Ors at the Cannes film festival and has been making exciting, energetic films for thirty years. It is therefore a shame that his name isn't more well known among film lovers. The first film of his which I saw was his more simple-minded, but completely bonkers comedy, Black Cat, White Cat. Although it is an excellent film which revives the thought that there are still comedies being made that can live up to the golden ages of Keaton and Chaplin, Monty Python and Zucker, Abrahams, Zucker, it pales in comparison to Kusturica's sprawling epic of a few years earlier.
This is one of the rare films which manages to blend and swap multiple genres seamlessly. Like in Lindsay Anderson's If... where I couldn't pinpoint the moment when it changes from a startlingly real depiction of youthful repression and an highly surreal revenge story, I only realised that Underground had stopped being a comedy when someone had hung themself from a bell tower whilst a wheelchair-bound man and his wife were set on fire.
Underground is a surreal epic comedy war drama in three parts - set in World War 2, the Cold War and the Yugoslav Wars respectively. The story is very large and complex, but mainly revolves around Blacky and Marko, two friends in Yugoslavia - an area now part of Serbia - who are both in love with the same woman and hateful of the Germans who repeatedly bomb them and attempt to steal away that same woman. It follows them from being petty thieves, to high government officials and all the way to war profiteers and army commanders.
One of Kusturica's greatest assets is his mastery of tone. The same things which were side-splittingly hilarious in the first half are made incredibly haunting in the latter. He achieves this with a wide array of tools; music, colour palate, characters and settings all morph alongside each other to convey the feeling of the action and the minds of our anti-heroes.
If I had to pick one favourite aspect of the film, it would have to be the Gypsy brass band which follow Blacky around for the first two thirds of the film. They not only add much to the surreality, comedy and mood of the film, but the energetic and virtuosic music they play - written by Goran Bregović - is absolutely amazing.
The performances by the leading cast are all excellent, particularly Mirjana Jokovic, who plays the love interest with equal measures of confusion, lust and sensuality. The monkey who plays Soni also gives a great performance as a monkey.
There are so many complex themes in Underground that it seems impossible to deal with them all in one review. It has explorations of patriotism, cultural identity, the effects of war, escapism from hostile environments, love, friendship, man's self-destructive nature, oppression and even more. On top of this, the film seems cuttingly allegorical in places, raising questions about governments in effect when the film was made.
Underground remains one of the most original films ever created, one which is so packed full of questions, answers, laughs, sobs and real characters that it demands multiple viewings to be fully appreciated. Recommended to anyone who enjoys films which do something different.
Also recommended from Serbia:
Other films by Emir Kusturica (Black Cat White Cat, Time of the Gypsies, When Father Was Away on Business)