Underground might be the best Serbian historical tragicomedy ever made. Wacky, heartbreaking and filled with life, the film earned director Emir Kusturica his second Palme d’Or from Cannes in 1995. It’s as much a live-action cartoon as a political allegory, aiming for high-brow concepts in a low-brow world.
The plot concerns Marko and Blacky, two Serbian rapscallions who run guns to fight the Nazis but are far more interested in hookers and booze. Their selfish adventures through occupied Yugoslavia get complicated by a love triangle and a nefarious scheme that has far-reaching consequences for them and their doomed nation.
Three reasons to watch:
- The music: It’s fairly literal to say that the film’s outstanding soundtrack is a character unto itself. The protagonists are regularly followed around by an actual Balkan brass band providing jaunty tunes for their mischief and debauchery. Music permeates the film and leaves a real lasting impression. I wouldn’t consider myself a brass band fan, but I’ll admit to having a few soundtrack songs on my playlists.
- The zaniness: The humor is not so broad as a church-door, but ‘tis enough, ‘twill serve. The exaggerated performances and heightened level of reality give the proceedings a wild irreverence quite on par with the personalities of the leads. Underneath it all, however, there is method to the madness.
- The history: The Balkans are a messy topic, and this is a messy movie about them. You might be inspired to learn more by the time the credits rolled. The film is fairly controversial in its homeland for its political stance, which makes the whole subject even more fascinating to explore.
Don’t say I didn’t warn you that:
- It’s long: Almost three hours long. In spite of the energy in virtually every scene, the meandering plot and sprawling timeline definitely make it feel long. The director’s cut was aired as a five-hour miniseries on Serbian television! So carve out a solid block of time before giving this “bare bones” version a shot.
Watch the trailer here.