There’s no need for a movie adaptation of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s magical realist tome One Hundred Years of Solitude. It’s already been made. Emir Kusturica’s tragic-farce Underground may be the most important film of the last 25 years, a sweltering, morally inquisitive work of political narrative fiction that laments our propensity for auto-destruction. In a time when supposedly serious journalism fails to illuminate the horrors of the world (pop quiz: what did Milosevic do to his people and why?), films like Underground exist to make amends. “Once upon a time there was a country…” So begins Kusturica’s parable of self-annihilation, a deliriously metaphorical, emotionally gut-wrenching and devastatingly funny chronicle of a death foretold.
Possessed by the cultural beat of his country, the gypsy-loving Kusturica structures the first part of Underground as an apocalyptic block party. From the start, the film is a testament to human perseverance. Blacky (Lazar Ristovski) and Marko (Miki Manojlovic) return to their homes on the brink of Hitler’s invasion of Yugoslavia. Marko fucks a local whore, undisturbed by the bombs falling outside (he comes, the town explodes!). A self-centered Blacky eats his grub despite his pregnant wife’s screaming. “How can you, with all these bombs?” she pleads. Only a shoe-swiping elephant gets him to his feet. Tick. Tock. Tick. Tock. That’s the sound of one man’s perpetually swinging stopwatch. It’s there to remind us: it’s only a matter of time.
The Bible envisions a redemptive return to Eden, a day when humans will live in harmony with tame animals. This is an archaic vision of the future Kusturica simultaneously embraces and questions, the pretext to the director’s study of the collapse of the human spirit. Marko’s retarded brother, the zookeeper Ivan (Slavko Stimac), begins the film as a politically untainted innocent. When Hitler’s bombs pummel the city, the animals are allowed to roam free (the young zookeeper tries to help those that remain in their cages). Kusturica directs his animals as well as he does his humans. A baby monkey, Sino, tries desperately to leave his cage, clawing at the lock but to no avail. Outside, a lion and a goose cuddle side-by-side amid the rubble. But, then, the lion lunges for the goose’s neck.
Ivan is told to “fuck the monkey, help the man.” This is one of the more devastating lines in the film, because it ignores the purity of Ivan’s relationship to an antsy animal seemingly unwilling to participate in Marko’s Great Lie. Marko and the three-timing actress Natalija (Mirjana Jokovic) hide Blacky, Ivan and a small community of people inside Blacky’s grandfather’s basement. Blacky’s wife, Vera (Mirjana Karanovic), literally spills into the underground, dying soon after childbirth without ever seeing her husband again. After World War II, Marko begins to deal with the communist Tito and allows the film’s underground community to believe that the war is still going on. “I will personally judge those who sell their souls,” says Blacky at one point. It’s a threat that looms large over the rest of the film. Tick. Tock. Tick. Tock.
Underground is a unique blend of lowbrow slapstick and sophisticated war commentary, earning it well-deserved comparisons to Ernst Lubitsch’s brilliant To Be and Not To Be (possibly the funniest movie ever made) and the films of Abbott and Costello. “Yeow!” is Marko’s signature wail, an indicator of his supreme embarrassment (and ours as well). When Marko and Blacky go to a local theater in order to bring Natalija to the underground, the actress is in the middle of putting on a ridiculously melodramatic performance (think Chekhov by way of Douglas Sirk). She’s terrible, but the elitist crowd of upper crust ghouls and Nazi soldiers love her. “Are you capitulating?” asks Natalija’s costar before Blacky walks on stage. And thus begins Kusturica’s fascinating intersection of art and fiction.
During the film’s second part (intriguingly titled “The Cold War”), Marko’s lie is in full effect. Despite her suffocating guilt, Natalija helps to oppress Marko’s people. The underground hosts an elaborate wedding for Blacky’s son, Jovan (Srdjan Todorovic), before Ivan’s chimp defies the clockwork of Marko’s cruelty and ushers the community of slaves toward freedom. Via holes, tunnels and wells, the ghosts of Yugoslavia return to Milosevic’s modern world, not Hitler’s. In Underground, art becomes indistinguishable from reality (a la Forrest Gump, the characters in the film get to mingle with real life historical personalities). Because great art perfectly mirrors the way we live, it also means nothing (at least not to a future generation) if it lacks moral inquisitiveness. In Kusturica’s film, naturally, the art is big because the people live big.
Marko’s epic betrayal gives way to a series of brutal disconnects. Outside, Jovan and Ivan react to the world like children who’ve stepped into alternate universes. The latter thinks it’s still WWII and he seemingly confuses a festive display of fireworks for the same bombs that destroyed his zoo several decades back. The former sees the world for the first time, confusing a deer for a horse and the moon for the sun. “The sun is asleep,” says Blacky, happily sharing with Jovan a father-son moment decades in-the-making. Equally heart-wrenching is Ivan’s separation from Sino, the only living creature in the film that hasn’t betrayed him. Unable to distinguish truth from fiction (is it blood or paint on the walls?), Kusturica’s mole people finally turn on themselves.
The familial war between Blacky and Marko is the war between Bosnia and Serbia. For Kusturica, family is country and Underground‘s third part positions Blacky’s wrath against his “brother” Marko as a devastating judgment day scenario. The retarded Ivan kills his brother Marko before committing suicide inside a church. Sino watches in terror. They’ve been here before, only now Ivan has succeeded and Sino seemingly understands that Ivan is better dead than “underground.” On fire, the wheelchair bound Marko and his dead whore Natalija circle an overturned statue of Christ. The church bells toll for Blacky as he tries to put his family out. He yells for his dead son Jovan, whose ghost swims in the river connected to their underground prison.
Kusturica’s film is a randy peepshow, a thorny docu-tangle of real-life horror and magical realist wish fulfillments. It explains how a country destroyed itself from the inside, and it exists to show us how not to repeat these mistakes. The people (and animals) in Kusturica’s requiem are perpetually restless—there’s an idea here that if they stop moving, they would cease to exist. Underground‘s final images are some of the finest ever committed to film. In death, Marko and Blacky are reunited one more time and their block party breaks off from the rest of the world. “There is no war until a brother kills a brother.” That’s Yugoslavia’s political and philosophical conundrum in a nutshell, but Kusturica intends his humanist masterwork as a time capsule for all nations. When does the party end and war begin? It doesn’t have to.