The Basement Japes
A comic masterpiece about a tragic conflict.
By Jim Ridley
MARCH 30, 1998: Emir Kusturica's Underground is, among other things, the first movie about the collapse of the former Yugoslavia that you could recommend wholeheartedly to a Three Stooges fan. It's also one of the great moviegoing experiences of recent years--a work of staggering sadness, vitality, and comic invention that's as awe-inspiring a spectacle in its own unhinged way as Titanic. An inexhaustible salvo of slapstick routines, sleight of hand, and political theater played out as deadly vaudeville, the movie's two-hour-and-47-minute running time whizzes by like a blizzard of bottle rockets. Yet at heart Underground is a monstrous, drunken wake for a country that killed itself. The casket's packed with booze, and the corpse puffs an exploding cigar, but no amount of desperate tomfoolery can diminish the loss.
Underground distills the last five decades of Yugoslavian history into a massive metaphorical construct that's part Marx Brothers, part lyrical tragedy, and part metafictional hootenanny. The curtains open with a fairy-tale declaration "Once upon a time there was a country." Then bang! Kusturica joins bang! pistol-waving loonies and a brass band in full oompah as they tear ass through the streets of Belgrade, as though it weren't 1941 and the Nazis weren't laying waste to Central Europe.
But it is, and they are. As best buddies Blacky (Lazar Ristovski) and Marko (Miki Manojlovic) indulge their gluttonous appetites for food and sex, a gentle zookeeper hears a whistling high overhead. He looks up to see Axis bombs shatter the cages and loose the imprisoned animals. A goose nips at a wounded tiger; the tiger downs the goose with a weary chomp. Meanwhile, in a hooker's apartment, Marko races the bombs to climax. Blacky, across town, doesn't mind the explosions as long as they don't interfere with breakfast.
With the city reduced to rubble, the scheming Marko convinces his rash, impressionable pal to help him hijack Nazi convoys filled with gold and arms. Blacky's all too willing to help, especially since his mistress, the faithless actress Natalija (Mirjana Jokovic), is courting favor with a Nazi officer. After brazenly kidnapping her in the middle of a stage play--a wildly farcical scene that dumps the characters into a fictional world, the first of many such instances--Blacky is captured and tortured, and Marko and Natalija come to his rescue in one of the most inept getaway capers ever filmed.
They stash the wounded Blacky with dozens of blinkered refugees in a cavernous underground munitions factory beneath Marko's house. There he joins a small civilization that includes his son, the zookeeper, a superintelligent chimp, and the brass band, among others. But when the war ends and Marshal Tito comes into power, Marko fears the reemergence of his best friend, especially since he has seduced Natalija in the meantime. Therefore, Marko and Natalija will spend the next 15 years sustaining an elaborate hoax, a fiction designed to convince Blacky and the underground dwellers that World War II still rages on the streets--the better to live off Blacky's status as a martyr.
Forgive this clumsy synopsis, which conveys none of the constant surprise of the plotting (by Kusturica and playwright Dusan Kovacevic) or the pure dammit-to-hell exuberance of Kusturica's filmmaking. At play there's a kind of silent-comedy logic, which makes it perfectly acceptable for, say, an urban dweller to see his shoes swiped by an elephant. Vilko Filac's camera wanders through antic tableaux of Baltic revelers in takes that last minutes on end, and for variety the camera might swing on the muzzle of a tank gun, or whirl around on a lazy Susan crammed with tuba players. The whole thing is propelled by a frantic Goran Bregovic score that sounds like an army of ducks walking on bicycle horns. If the movie were any more boisterous, the reels would fly off the projector and carom off the walls.
But the noise, the raunchy humor, and the visual bombardment never obscure the movie's gravity. When it won the Palme d'Or three years ago at Cannes, in a victory that sparked an international controversy, Underground was reviled abroad as Serbian propaganda, and the Sarajevo-born Kusturica was denounced as a traitor. (Perhaps that's because he includes newsreel footage of cheering Croatians welcoming the Nazi invaders during the war.) If indeed there are subtleties that show Kusturica favors one ethnicity over another, they're either lost in translation or lost on Western audiences.
What isn't lost is Kusturica's grieving for his fractured homeland, or his even-handed indictment of his countrymen for their willingness either to exploit or to allow themselves to be exploited. The disintegration of postwar Yugoslavia, in the movie's terms, is a ridiculous fiction that required the collaboration of most of its citizens, whether they're the Markos who conspired to line their pockets by oppressing their comrades, or they're the Blackies who blindly accepted whatever leadership came to power. Nazi, Communist, whatever--the director greets each new shift in the power structure with the same ironic refrain of "Lili Marlene."
Kusturica doesn't even entirely trust the process of moviemaking, which strikes him as a little too close to Marko's brand of myth-making manipulation. Doctored newsreels coincide with the Rube Goldberg-like periscope that Marko uses to spy on the world underground. In the movie's most riotous scene, Blacky finally emerges from his hole only to blunder into a tacky biopic--his own.
As often in satire, Underground's heroes are almost completely lacking in psychological complexity. Like carousers in a Fielding novel, the characters show happiness by breaking into a jig, and if someone feels racked by guilt, he's likely as not to express it by shooting himself in the leg a few times. And yet the movie grows almost imperceptibly more somber. By the film's final section, when father loses son and brother kills brother, the zaniness of the first two-thirds has given way to a long, sustained note of regret and to indelibly surreal images of devastation: a flaming wheelchair creeping in circles, a body suspended from the rope of an incessantly pealing church bell.
Underground closes with a coda of extraordinary sweetness and beauty, as Kusturica literally reassembles his country before casting it adrift forever on a sea of memory. Underground is scheduled to play only a week at the Watkins Belcourt; we can only hope it draws more of an audience than the excellent Welcome to Sarajevo did a few weeks ago. If not, maybe local audiences can't stomach movies about the Bosnian conflict, however abstract and stylized, because they remind us that once upon a time there was a country where brother killed brother, and we lived there.
* In The Tango Lesson, writer-director Sally Potter plays a writer and director named Sally Potter, whose latest film project has been sidelined by dull-witted executives and a vicious case of writer's block. As her own idea languishes, Potter attends a performance by the Argentine tango master Pablo Veron, played by the Argentine tango master Pablo Veron. Intrigued by the dancer's magnetism, Potter convinces him to teach her the tango as preparation for her next film, with the implicit understanding that Veron will be cast as the lead. The tension between their temperaments gives the idea some built-in suspense Can Potter relinquish her director's natural inclination to shape the project long enough to learn the steps? And even if she can, will Veron subject his will to her vision once the film gets off the ground?
The answers would be more interesting if the movie weren't already shaped by Potter. In fact, an actual documentary by an impartial third party would've been a lot more interesting, since Potter is of course already controlling the way we see Veron. When he's performing the tango without Potter, she's still (literally) calling the shots about the placement of the camera, the lighting, and the editing, even if she does nothing more than lock down and roll film. It doesn't help that the film-within-a-film Potter struggles with is god-awful: The studio execs are presented as the usual vapid El Lay dimwits, but based on the evidence she shows us--basically a straight version of the lousy midgets-and-smoke dream sequence from Living in Oblivion--they'd be mooncalves to cough up a cent.
Potter has taken heat for casting herself in the lead, but she makes a pretty appealing heroine: The movie wouldn't be half as interesting without her in the lead, for cinematic novelty alone. She even dances honorably when she steps onto the floor with Veron, a human panther with charisma to burn. But it's behind the camera where she really shines during the dance sequences: They're exquisitely photographed in silvery black-and-white by the great Robby Mčller (Breaking the Waves), with the attention to setting and surrounding space that hack directors always overlook. For two sequences alone The Tango Lesson is worth seeing: an amusingly sexy dance of flirtation that plays teasing spatial games with parallel airport escalators, and an extended tango on a riverwalk that's simply magical. The scenes of practice and performance are always engaging, but off the floor The Tango Lesson has two left feet.
* Richard Linklater's The Newton Boys ends exactly where it should've started: with an anecdote about two old cusses who were questioned about a botched robbery in Texas--only 50 years after they'd terrorized the Southwest's banks in a notorious stick-up crew. Instead, The Newton Boys offers a poky, straightforward telling of the career of the four Newton brothers, "America's most successful bank robbers," who cut a multimillion-dollar swath across North America from 1919 to 1924.
Linklater, a talented director with a real gift for the significant offhand moments when most people think nothing's happening, has a luxuriant eye for period detail, as he showed in the '70s milieu of Dazed and Confused. But he also seems to be relying on period authenticity because he doesn't have anything else to say. Aside from a few neat close-ups of pouring nitroglycerine, there's not much here that Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid didn't pull off with a lot more panache. And despite a highly touted cast of young Hollywood guns--Matthew McConaughey, Ethan Hawke, Skeet Ulrich, and Vincent D'Onofrio--the four Newtons don't add up to a single Paul Newman.
Nevertheless, for die-hard bank-job fans there's another offbeat performance by Dwight Yoakam as a nervous safecracker; a coolly slimy turn by veteran character actor Luke Askew as a crooked bull; a bouncy mock-'20s score by bluegrass punks the Bad Livers; and a refreshingly minuscule body count. The Newton Boys is pleasant and instantly forgettable, but Richard Linklater is capable of much more than recycled Americana. Let's hope this OK holdup flick isn't the start of a holding pattern.
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