In 1993 the former Yugoslavia's greatest filmmaker, Emir Kusturica, returned to his homeland after a five-year absence to confront the disintegration of his country with a dazzling epic allegory, "Underground," which took two years to make and which won the Palme d'Or at Cannes in 1995.
Best known for the Oscar-nominated "When Father Was Away on Business" (1985), set in Yugoslavia's harsh Stalinist period, and "Time of the Gypsies" (1989), a chronicle of a youth's induction to petty crime, Kusturica also made the wonderfully offbeat romantic adventure "Arizona Dream" (1993), a revealing funny-sad slice of Americana with an equally wonderfully unexpected cast headed by Johnny Depp, Faye Dunaway, Jerry Lewis and Lili Taylor.
It takes a great deal of passion and sorrow to sustain a 167-minute tragicomic farce, but only occasionally does "Underground," which screens today through Thursday at the Port Theatre in Corona del Mar, grow weary. It's a sprawling, rowdy, vital film laced with both outrageous absurdist dark humor and unspeakable pain, suffering and injustice. It spans the years 1941, when Germany bombed and invaded the country--the Allies bombed it too--until 1992, when warfare was again spreading across the land.
(Ironically, in attempting to take an all-encompassing perspective on the fate of Yugoslavia and in avoiding taking sides in the current turmoil, Kusturica touched off such a controversy on home ground that he announced he was quitting filmmaking. He has since changed his mind and has signed to direct the late Dennis Potter's adaptation of D.M. Thomas' novel "The White Hotel," a chronicle of a woman's life from 1900 to World War II.)
Wars have always provided lucrative opportunities for unscrupulous profiteers, and the natty, wiry Marko (Miki Manojlovic, star of "When Father Was Away on Business") has enough shrewdness and daring to lure his naive pal Blacky (Lazar Ristovski) into dealing in arms and gold and engaging in guerrilla raids on Nazi convoys, which allows them to emerge as postwar heroes of the burgeoning Communist Party. Indeed, in Marshal Tito's greatest moments of public triumph, Marko--now his close confidant--pops up Zelig-like, standing next to him.
A different fate, however, awaits Blacky, for in one fell swoop Marko steals Natalija (Mirjana Jokovic), the woman the rugged Blacky loves, while he and a host of others, including Blacky's own brother Ivan (Slavko Stimac), continue hiding in the cavernous basement beneath Blacky's elegant country villa outside Belgrade. Periodic recorded bursts of strafing interspersed with snatches of Lale Andersen's famous recording of "Lili Marleen" convince those in hiding that World War II continues long after peace. They go on manufacturing the light weapons--and even a tank--that will turn Blacky into a major arms merchant. Vera (Mirjana Karanovic) may have no talent whatsoever as an actress--this doesn't impede her tremendous popularity, however--but she's no fool. Although passionately in love with Marko, she has an inconvenient conscience about all those people toiling away in her basement that drives her to drink.
Illusion and reality collide spectacularly when a film, an unintentionally Keystone Cops-like treatment of Marko's World War II heroics, commences production. It provides Kusturica with a climax to "Underground," but such is its scope it jumps to an ultimate reckoning between its principals in 1992 and beyond that to an epilogue that is profoundly touching--and amusing as well. As all this suggests, Kusturica is nothing if not ambitious, loading his film with potent symbols around its central metaphor as that basement representing a Yugoslavia under a communist system that kept its people in ignorance as it exploited them.
Like Polish master Andrzej Wajda did in his landmark "Man of Marble," Kusturica wickedly skewers the kitschy, ponderous communist bloc taste--from bland realist statuary to displays of power expressed in pompous parades.
Manojlovic's Blacky recalls Giancarlo Giannini's similarly opportunist--though not nearly so smart or lucky--antihero in Lina Wertmuller's "Seven Beauties," set in World War II. Kusturica and co-writer Dusan Kovacevic, who also wrote the original story, have created roles of a lifetime for his four key actors--Stimac's brother emerges as a figure of gentle betrayed innocence--and they are up to the tremendous range they demand.
"I was born [in 1954] in a country where hope, laughter and the joy of living are stronger than anywhere else," Kusturica has said. "Evil as well. You are perpetrator or the victim."
He has captured all of this and more with wit, compassion and irony in "Underworld"--and has even dared to end on a note of hope and reconciliation for the former Yugoslavia.
* Unrated. Times guidelines: The film has strong language, some sexuality and wartime violence.
Miki Manojlovic: Marko
Lazar Ristovski: Petar (Blacky) Popara
Mirjana Jokovic: Natalija
Slavko Stimac: Ivan
An Anthology Film Archives and New Yorker Films in association with CIBY 2000 presentation. Director: Emir Kusturica. Executive producer: Pierre Spengler. Screenplay by Kusturica and Dusan Kovacevic; from a story by Kovacevic. Cinematographer: Vilko Filac. Editor: Branka Ceparac. Costumes: Nebojsa Lipanovic. Music: Goran Bregovic. Production designer: Miljen (Kreka) Kljakovic. Running time: 2 hours, 47 minutes.
* Exclusively at the Port Theatre through Thursday, 2905 E. Coast Highway, Corona del Mar; (714) 673-6260.