Movie Magazine International

Underground (Il Čtait une fois un pays)

France/Germany/Hungary - 1995

Movie Review By Andrea Chase

The repression of free speech in the former Yugoslavia inadvertantly, at least from the official point of view, created a highly developed facility among the disgruntled for getting their point across. They became masters of saying one thing and meaning another. The repression also cultivated a particularly wondrous capacity for black humor. Humor so black that your laughter may be choked by gasps of horror. As an example of both, you can't do better than Emir Kusturica's musings on recent history, "Underground."

Before embarking on a flight of mordant fantasy, the story begins, more or less, in the real world, though it is pointed out that only life is true, all art is a lie. Be that as it may, we meet our three anti-heroes, the actress Nalajie and the two men in love with her, Marko and Blacky. The time is WWII, Yugoslavia is being invaded by the Nazis, and the guys are resistance fighters using their capitalist skills and underworld tendencies to help support the communist resistance. The central political allegory comes early on and gives the film its title. In a treacherous move to insure that he alone will have the lovely Natalije, Marko takes the wounded Blacky to an underground refuge. When the war ends, he, well, forgets to tell Blacky, or anyone else down there about it. Instead, he masquerades as their protector. For the next 20 years those below ground create a makeshift society and make munitions for the non-existent resistance that Marko sells at a tidy profit on the black market above ground.

There are a few caveats. You have to really love trenchant political satire. A working knowledge of the former Yugoslavia's recent history is, I suspect, also a help for catching some of the finer points. Lastly, with a running time of two hours, forty-seven minutes, you will need provisions over and above popcorn. But, if you're willing to take this film on its own terms, it's a raucous and sophisticated trip down Yugoslavia's memory lane to chaos.

It's an odd comedy, with a bleak viewpoint that never lightens up. It's theater of the absurd in the service of nihilism at its most pernicious. To the question of whether or not there's even one ray of hope for the former Yugoslavia, "Underground's" answer is firm. "Not in this life."

© 1998 - Andrea Chase - Air Date: 4/11/98

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