Underground begins on a deceptively lyrical, unassuming note: “Once upon a time, there was a country.” On the evening of April 6, 1941, two drunken profiteers, Marko (Miki Manojlovic) and Blacky (Lazar Ristovski) celebrate their latest caper – the theft of a government arms shipment – accompanied by a raucous, obliging gypsy band. However, their revelry is truncated on the following morning, as Belgrade is bombed by Allied troops, and the two opportunists are identified as Communist insurgents. Facing the uncertainty of war and possible arrest, Marko decides to seek refuge at his grandfather’s cellar with his brother Ivan (Slavko Stimac), Blacky, and Blacky’s pregnant wife, Vera (Mirjana Karanovic). Blacky’s separation from his mistress, an actress named Natalija (Mirjana Jokovic), becomes unbearable, and after spending several years apart, devises a plan to kidnap her on-stage and kill her lover, a German officer named Franz (Ernst Stotzner). The plan goes awry when Natalija refuses to resume their relationship, and Blacky is captured and interrogated by the Germans. Marko surfaces through an elaborate series of underground passages and emerges at a hospital to successfully rescue Blacky, but a reckless mishap with a hand grenade leaves Blacky severely injured and confined in the cellar for an extended period of time in order to recuperate. Shut out of the outside world and solely reliant on Marko’s reports of the war’s progress, Blacky is oblivious to the profound changes sweeping Yugoslavia, as the Communists have become national heroes after defeating the Fascists. Marko exploits Blacky’s informational dependence to fabricate stories of a protracted war in order to profit from the free labor offered by the underground workers. By 1961, Marko has married Natalija and reaped the benefits of his alliance with Marshall Tito by claiming a high-ranking post, while Blacky continues to manufacture armaments to help the war effort, unaware of his best friend’s selfish duplicity and betrayal.
Emir Kusturica creates a frenetic, delirious, farcical, insightful, and ultimately tragic allegory on the dissolution of a nation in Underground. Using surreal, repeated events that interweave reality and illusion, Kusturica presents an incisive metaphor for the turbulent and often vicious circle of Yugoslavian politics: the repeated aerial assaults during World War II are later re-staged by Marko in order to continue deceiving the underground workers; wedding receptions continually feature the lively Gypsy band; military personnel shuttle paying refugees in a hidden tunnel through Yugoslavia; the haunting, parting image of Marko and Natalija in Bosnia. In the end, the prophetic words, “War is not a war unless a brother kills a brother”, becomes a metaphor for the dissolution of a nation through ethnic conflict, an elegy for the fractured soul of a divided country.
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