After the overwhelming success of Relatos Salvajes two weeks before, Gabriel had a tough act to follow. I’ll spoil the whole thing by saying up front that his second film wasn’t anywhere near as good as his first. In the end it was quite a bit more bizarre – which didn’t appear to be the case at first – but as good? Nah.
The feature presentation was Yugoslavian director Emir Kusturica‘s ode to his former nation, Underground. It was long enough (nearly three hours – and that cut down from the over five-hour mini-series version!) that we didn’t go with a short.
Let me just be explicit before talking about the structure of the film that there are very obviously a ton of things that simply do not come across in translation, not only language-wise but clearly culture-wise as well. Sometimes, as much as one wants to think they know a bit about what’s going on on the opposite side of the globe, when it really comes down to it it’s easy to be pretty clueless. Kusturica starts out his film with a fairly obvious dedication of yearning (“Once upon a time there was one country”) but the events of the film that caused it to be fairly widely denounced by political opponents, the differential portrayals of Serbian, Croatian, and Bosnian ethnic groups, the political references to leaders (especially Tito) and the documentary footage that some of the main characters were composited into simply don’t register for a lifelong Yank. For instance, I didn’t even catch the fact that several different ethnic groups were being portrayed. And this simply has to detract from the impact of the film. Kusturica uses an ever-increasingly-fantastical narrative to cover Yugoslavian history from the beginning of WWII to the time of the Balkan wars, but the subtleties are lost, leaving behind a macabre carnival of metaphorical scenes without a touchstone to tie it back to the real world.
TL;DR: I’m not Yugoslavian, and I didn’t get it.
But here’s what I did get:
The film, which is composed of essentially three segments, is mainly concerned with the relationship between two great friends (Blacky on the left, Marko on the right) and their rivalrous love for the country’s greatest actress Natalija (center). There’s more to it – notably, a good amount of plot follows Marko’s stuttering brother and his pet chimp, rescued from a bombed-out Belgrade zoo at the very beginning of the film.
As the bombing campaigns begin in WWII, Marko and Blacky hide their families (including Blacky’s pregnant wife – note: NOT Natalija – who subsequently dies during childbirth) in a very large secret basement where they are not only safe from the bombs but are also able to run a makeshift munitions factory.
Natalija, for her part, is about as fickle as they come. She begins the WWII section of the film nominally in love with Blacky, but she quickly jumps ship for a suave occupying German officer. In a fit, Blacky breaks onto stage during one of Natalija’s performances and unloads a revolver into the chest of the officer, who was watching from the front row. However, it turns out that the officer was wearing a bulletproof vest and Blacky is eventually captured and subjected to torture. Marko finishes the job on the German, then rescues Blacky. It’s about this time that the first truly unbelievable event occurs – when an already-torture-weary Blacky is being secretly transported in a crate, he is given a grenade to allow him to go all murder-suicide if he gets recaptured. But he’s a bit of a buffoon and he accidentally sets off the grenade – and lives, without massive chunks of flesh having been ripped out of him. It’s the kind of effect that a grenade would have in, say, Monty Python. Anyway, Blacky is sent to recuperate in the secret cellar.
He’ll be there for 20 years.
As Blacky and his basement buddies continue to build up an armory, WWII finally ends. But on the outside Marko finds himself as not only a major confidante of Tito but also realizes that he has a really great black-market arms factory going on. So, he nabs Natalija, creates a legend of the death of the war hero Blacky, and keeps his rival productive in the basement for 20 years (which through clock manipulation he manages to make the dwellers believe is “only” 15 years), all the while faking the occasional air raid to keep his virtual prisoners snookered. Natalija is totally in on this. And let me point out that the make-up work to make our characters look 20 years older is…well, they didn’t really do anything at all on that front. (This is pretty distracting, all things considered.)
Things finally come to a head when Marko and Natalija (pretending – or not pretending, it’s not clear – to still be in love with Blacky) come down to the cellar to be present at Blacky’s son’s wedding. (There are quite a few kids in the basement, it turns out. Not much else to do down there for 20 years, I imagine.)
Blacky is getting pretty anxious to defy Marko’s “orders” from Tito to stay put and get out to the surface to fight the war that he believes is still devastating his country. He gets his opportunity because, well, they built a tank. And hey, what else do you do when you’re trapped in a secret armory for 20 years? You build a tank, that’s what! But you do not leave the tank unaccompanied during an underground wedding when there’s a crazy chimp around, I gotta tell you. The chimp fires into the crowd, blasting a hole in the cellar and allowing Blacky and his son to escape.
Bizarrely, they stumble on a film which is re-creating Blacky’s own story and Blacky starts slaughtering “German soldiers”. Eventually, Blacky, his son, and his son’s bride all appear to metaphorically die in water. (If this is symbolic, I don’t get it.)
Jump ahead 30 years to the ’90s Balkan wars. Marko (now in a motorized wheelchair) and Natalija are still together (and still war profiteers), and Blacky (not dead!) is now a general in the (Serbian?) army. Upon being notified of the capture of two war profiteers he orders them to be immediately executed, not knowing that it is his former friend and lover until he later collects their papers. In the most evocative image of the film, he comes across the burning corpses of Marko and Natalija circling round and round a cross in Marko’s motorized wheelchair, and he regrets the turns that brought them all to this fate.
And you’d think that would be the end of the film. But no, we kinda get a re-do here. We go back all the way to Blacky’s son’s wedding, but this time it’s above ground, Blacky’s wife is still alive (and still jealous of Natalija, who is Marko’s wife), and Marko’s brother no longer stutters. As the wedding party continues, the shoreside plot of land where the wedding is being held breaks free from the mainland, and drifts out into the water. The end.
I can’t pretend to get it. By the obviously metaphorical end of the film all of the dead characters have come back to life and are living in perfect harmony on a little island that must symbolize a united Yugoslavia. It’s this idyllic re-write of the tragic and wartorn history of the Balkans, and the sentiment is right. It’s clunky and it doesn’t make a lot of sense (even less in translation) but at the same time I can see how it’s the right ending. It’s just that as a whole I don’t think the film was executed that well, and while I know a lot of that is cultural distance I still feel like the straddling of metaphor and realism takes something away. Oddly enough I believe the film would have been better served to go far more explicitly metaphorical, and I don’t think I often say that.