Underground

on June 20, 1997 by by
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   Won Palme d'Or. A sprawling, imaginative, bold and impressive work, alternately funny and dark, Emir Kusturica's "Underground" won the Palme d'Or at Cannes. The film blends passion and politics and serves as a telling reminder to western cultures that beneath the bloodshed in the former Yugoslavia is a people's proud and defiant spirit.
   Recounting the history of that country, "Underground" spans 50 years. Although most of its 192 minutes go by at a rapid clip, the film could stand some cutting, particularly during an overlong central wedding sequence. Length aside, "Underground" offers astonishing moments. The opening sequence is as powerful a statement about war as anything on film. In 1943, a peaceful day's lull in German air attacks is broken when a bomb falls directly onto the Belgrade zoo. With a blend of irony and tragedy that permeates the film, a horde of animals--tigers, chimpanzees, birds--would be liberated when the zoo's walls crumble, but instead they lie killed or wounded by the shrapnel slicing through them.
   Shy zookeeper Ivan (Slavko Stimac) goes to seek help from his brother Blacky (Lazar Ristovski), a revolutionary. Once Blacky is declared an outlaw, they take refuge in a massive cellar belonging to Blacky's friend Marko (Miki Manojlovic). There, with scores of other refugees, they make weapons to sell on the black market. When Marko, still living above, seduces Blacky's girlfriend Natalija (Mirjana Jokovic), the two friends become bitter rivals.
   Although peace returns to Belgrade, Marko exploits the cellar refugees for decades by convincing them the war is still on. Profiting shamelessly from their arms manufacturing, Marko also becomes one of Tito's cronies and a false hero of the regime, when the real fighters are underground. Meanwhile, life goes on in the cellar as wedding celebrations and even deaths transpire.
   The cellar itself is a masterpiece of setwork. Production designer Milijen Klajkovic, who brought his imaginative vision to "Delicatessen," has created a self-contained world both strange and realistic. Filmed in sepia tones, the cellar scenes juxtapose physical decay with the indefatiguable human spirit of the cellar's occupants.
   The story winds up in the present, with Blacky and the others having escaped the cellar through subterranean tunnels only to emerge and find their country unrecognizable--and yet unchanged. Modern cars and telephones are everywhere, but bombs and bloodshed still abound, and the war again seems pointless. When "Underground" succeeds, it does so brilliantly. As an allegory, it's a striking testament to the power of a people to endure in the face of suffering, pain and deception. Even when it rambles, diluting its focus, it is always interesting. Kusturica's balance of humor and pathos keeps the film from becoming preachy or dogmatic, yet it resonates with sensitivity and contemporary relevance. Starring Miki Manojlovic, Lazar Ristovski, Mirjana Jokovic and Slavko Stimac. Directed by Emir Kusturica. Written by Emir Kusturica and Dusan Kovacevic. Produced by Pierre Spengler. A Ciby 2000 production; distribution pending. Drama. In Serbo-Croation; subtitled. Not yet rated. Running time: 192 min
Tags: Miki Manojlovic, Lazar Ristovski, Mirjana Jokovic, Slavko Stimac, Emir Kusturica, Dusan Kovacevic, Pierre Spengler, Ciby 2000, Drama, physical, passion, western culture, tragedy, imaginative
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