Emir Kusturica is a director I admire. Upon winning the Palme d'Or at Cannes in 1985 for his second feature, When Father Was Away on Business, he decided to chuck his illustrious film career in for a few years in order to play in a rock band.
And while the appearance of Jerry Lewis in Kusturica's first English language movie (Arizona Dream, 1993) seemed perverse to many viewers, it was, for the director, the realisation of an intense childhood fantasy.
Right now, Kusturica is not so happy or carefree. Underground, his wild meditation on the tumultuous history of the former Yugoslavia, has already proved so politically contentious that he has vowed to give up filmmaking. But whatever one's position on the film's content, this much is certain: it is a marvellous, astonishing, rich and ecstatic movie.
The sprawling, outlandish plot charts a dark course from the bombings of World War II to the terrible Bosnian crisis of today. The film can be considered as a Brecht-like parable, almost a fractured fairy tale of social corruption. Its two leading men are representative types for Kusturica.
On the one hand there is Marko (Miki Manojlovic), the eternal opportunist and strategist. In a savage parody of Forrest Gump (1994), we see Marko flitting in and out of archival newsreels – not the holy innocent but the unholy operator, always in the right place at the right time to cut a dirty deal.
Then there is Marko's best friend Blacky (Lazar Ristovski). He represents the simple but wild man who is prey to the seductions of an ideology – and once he has a gun in his hand, he will shoot anyone remotely resembling the enemy.
In the central section of Underground, Marko fools Blacky and his comrades into staying locked up in an underground cellar – while lies of equally ghastly proportions are propagated above ground.
Kusturica leaves the political and historical analysis of his country's history at this elementary level. From there, he soars up to an archetypal plane. He comprehends the gory, human comedy as a great, bloody carnival of good and evil, lust and violence, the seven deadly sins run riot. All of Kusturica's characters are instinctive, impulsive animals – and he too trusts his brute instincts, choosing to celebrate the soul of Yugoslavia, a country where (he claims) "hope, laughter and the joy of living are stronger than anywhere else. Evil as well."
These feverish projections of an archetypal imagination are far removed from the bland, reassuring pieties of Babe (1995). Kusturica's films are like baroque, demented rock operas: vulgar, explosive and relentlessly spectacular. Much of Underground is devoted to large, communal events (parties, weddings, parades) that quickly reach a feverish pitch of histrionic melodrama. It is glorious to behold.
As always in Kusturica, there is an Eternal Triangle – for Man and Woman are also eternal essences in his universe, forever locked in fiery combat. The destinies of Marko and Blacky tangle over Natalija (Mirjana Jokovic), a celebrated actress of stage and screen who travels from innocence to cynicism and dissipation in the course of the tale. Kusturica's archetypal visions have not always been kind to women, but Natalija is a mesmerising live wire – determined to dance and drink and lust until the world ends around her.
The mood of Underground is not always this wild or high. As it approaches the present day, the film becomes darker, more despairing. At one remarkable moment, a character is plunged into water – and there he sees, serenely swimming beside him, someone whom we earlier saw die. This surreal apparition (reminiscent of Jean Vigo's L'Atalante ) sets up an unexpected ending, a coda to follow all the carnage and bloodshed – and this sad, beguiling, beautiful finale is like Kusturica's utopian wish, or prayer.
Underground is a masterpiece. It is one of those grand movies which is beyond good and evil, beyond any petty critical evaluation of what works or not in it. Kusturica has taken the lyrical, tormented intensity of his Time of the Gypsies (1989) to new heights here.
I confess that I have a peculiar and singular relationship to the work of this director: where normally I can observe almost any film from a professional distance, his movies pour right into me, completely escape my guard. So I urge you: be ravished by Underground.
MORE Kusturica: Black Cat White Cat
© Adrian Martin December 1995