ⓘ Underground (1995 film)

Underground (1995 film)

ⓘ Underground (1995 film)

Underground, is a 1995 comedy-drama film directed by Emir Kusturica, with a screenplay co-written by the director and Dusan Kovacevic. It is also known by the subtitle Once Upon a Time There Was One Country, which was the title of the 5-hour mini-series shown on Serbian RTS television.

The film uses the epic story of two friends to portray a Yugoslav history from the beginning of World War II until the beginning of Yugoslav Wars. The film was an international co-production with companies from Yugoslavia Serbia, France, Germany, Czech Republic and Hungary. The theatrical version is 163 minutes long. In interviews, Kusturica stated that his original version ran for over 320 minutes, and that he was forced to cut it by co-producers.

Underground won the Palme dOr at the 1995 Cannes Film Festival. It was Kusturicas second such award after When Father Was Away on Business 1985. It went on to win other honours.


1. Plot

In the early morning of 6 April 1941 in Belgrade, the capital of the Kingdom of Yugoslavia, two roguish bon vivants Petar Popara, nicknamed Crni Blacky and Marko Dren are heading home. They pass through Kalemegdan and shout salutes to Markos brother Ivan, an animal keeper in the Belgrade Zoo. Marko lets Blackys pregnant wife Vera know that they enrolled Blacky in the Communist Party KPJ.


1.1. Plot Part One: War

Later, the hungover Blacky is eating breakfast while pregnant Vera complains about his supposed affair with a theatre actress. Suddenly, the roar of the planes is heard, and German bombs begin falling on Belgrade. After the air raid is over, Blacky goes out against the wishes of his wife and inspects the devastated city. Encountering building ruins and escaped wild animals from the zoo, he also runs into disconsolate Ivan carrying a baby chimp named Soni. The Royal Yugoslav Armys resistance is quickly broken, and German troops soon occupy and dismember the entire Kingdom. Blacky starts operating clandestinely as a communist activist along with Marko and others. Blacky occasionally visits his mistress Natalija Zovkov who has been assigned to a special actors labour brigade that is helping the citys rebuilding effort under German occupational control. An acclaimed, pampered, and celebrated actress in the National Theatre, Natalija has caught the eye of a high-ranking German officer named Franz.

Marko has set up weapons storage and hideaway spot in the cellar of his grandfathers house. Following their interception of a large trainload of weapons, Marko and Blacky are identified as dangerous bandits in German radio bulletins. While Blacky is off hiding in the woods as Germans are intensifying door-to-door raids in the city, Marko takes Vera, Ivan and many others into the cellar to hide. Vera is due and gives birth to a baby boy, who she names Jovan before dying.

In 1944, and Blacky is in town to celebrate his sons birthday at a local communist hangout. The two best friends head for the theatre in a jovial mood. They see Natalija performing on stage in front of Franz and other German officers, and Blacky shoots Franz in the chest. With Natalija, Blacky manages to reach the river boat anchored just outside Belgrade. Naturally, Marko is along as well, and all are getting ready for a forced wedding despite Natalijas protestations.

The party is interrupted by German soldiers surrounding the anchored boat. Suddenly, Franz is seen yelling, demanding Blacky and Marko release Natalija, who runs to Franz. Blacky is captured by Germans and tortured in the city hospital with electric shocks while Franz and Natalija visit her brother Bata at the same hospital. Meanwhile, Marko has found a way to enter the building through an underground sewer passage. Sneaking up on Franz, Marko strangles him to death with a cord in front of Natalija who switches sides once again. Marko then proceeds to free Blacky. They leave with fatigued Blacky hidden in a suitcase, but Blacky is injured by a grenade.

A few days later on Easter 1944, Marko and Natalija, now a couple, are watching a comatose Blacky. In late October, the Red Army accompanied by Yugoslav Partisans enters Belgrade. Marko gives fiery speeches from the National Theater balcony during the Trieste crisis, socializes with Josip Broz Tito, Rankovic and Edvard Kardelj and he stands next to Tito during military parades through downtown Belgrade.


1.2. Plot Part Two: Cold War

In 1961, Marko is one of Titos closest associates and advisors. The physically recovered Blacky and company are still in the cellar under the impression that the War is still going on above. Marko and Natalija attend a ceremony to open a cultural center and unveil a statue of Petar Popara Blacky, who everyone thinks died, becoming a Peoples Hero. With the help of his grandfather who is in on the devious con, Marko oversees the weapons manufacturing and even controls time by adding hours to a day so the people in the cellar think that only 15 years passed since the beginning of World War II instead of 20. Theyre continuously making weapons, and Marko profits from it enormously.

The filming of an epic state-sponsored motion picture based on Markos memoirs titled Prolece stize na belom konju Spring Comes On A White Horse begins above ground. Soon, Blackys 20-year-old son Jovan is getting married to Jelena, a girl he grew up with in the cellar. Marko and Natalija are naturally invited for a celebration. Ivans chimpanzee Soni has wandered into a tank and fires a round blowing a hole in the wall. Soni wanders off, and Ivan follows.

Blacky, with his son Jovan, emerges from underground for the first time in decades. They encounter the set of Spring Comes On A White Horse and believing the war is still on, kill two extras and the actor playing Franz. In the manhunt, Jovan drowns but Blacky escapes.


1.3. Plot Part Three: War

In 1992 at the height of the Yugoslav Wars, Ivan re-emerges with Soni, whom he was recently reunited with. He stumbles upon Marko, who is attempting to broker an arms deal in the middle of a conflict zone. The deal falls through and Ivan catches up with and Marko beats him to unconsciousness, then commits suicide. Natalija arrives and rushes to Markos side, proclaiming her love for him. They are captured by militants and they are ordered to be executed as arms dealers by militants commander, Blacky.

Blacky moves his people out to the cellar that he lived years ago, taking Soni with him. He sees an image of Jovan in a well, and inadvertently falls in while reaching for him.

In a dreamlike ending sequence, Blacky, Marco, and others are reunited at an outside dinner party, celebrating Jovans wedding. Ivan gives a few parting words, ending with "Once upon a time, there was a country."


2. Cast

  • Mirjana Karanovic as Vera, Blackys wife
  • Bora Todorovic as Golub, the leader of the brass orchestra that frequently accompanies Blacky and Marko
  • Mirsad Tuka as Investigator
  • Predrag Zagorac as Tomislav
  • Lazar Ristovski as Petar "Blacky" Popara, an electrician who enrolls in the Communist Party before World War II and ends up a Serbian patriot during the Yugoslav Wars
  • Miki Manojlovic as Marko Dren, Communist Party official climbing up the party ladder who becomes an arms dealer
  • Mirjana Jokovic as Natalija Zovkov, an opportunistic theater actress constantly switching loyalties
  • Danilo Stojkovic as Grandfather, Markos grandfather who owns the cellar and helps perpetuate his ruse
  • Davor Dujmovic as Bata, Natalijas crippled brother
  • Slavko Stimac as Ivan Dren, Markos stutterer brother who cares for zoo animals
  • Ernst Stotzner as Franz, a Wehrmacht officer in charge of Belgrade. Stotzner also portrays an actor playing Franz.
  • Srdan Todorovic as Jovan Popara, Blackys son, who lives almost his entire life underground

3. Production

The shooting of the film began in fall 1993 and lasted off-and-on until early spring 1995. The state-owned Radio Television of Serbia had a small role in financing the film, and the film used rented Yugoslav Army VJ equipment as props.


The films soundtrack includes music by Goran Bregovic and the participation of Cesaria Evora.


4.1. Reception Critical reception

Underground has not been widely reviewed by English-language critics, though it has gained generally favorable reviews. Rotten Tomatoes reports 81% approval based on 31 critics. In the New York Daily News, Dave Kehr lauded the film as "ferociously intelligent and operatically emotional," and Kevin Thomas of the Los Angeles Times called it a "sprawling, rowdy, vital film laced with both outrageous absurdist dark humor and unspeakable pain, suffering and injustice". Variety s Deborah Young reviewed the film after seeing it at the 1995 Cannes Film Festival, praising it as "a steamroller circus that leaves the viewer dazed and exhausted, but mightily impressed", and adding that "if Fellini had shot a war movie, it might resemble Underground ".

Janet Maslin of the New York Times wrote that the films "real heart is its devastating idea of a morning after: the moment when, after being in the grip of a political delusion lasting several decades, a man can emerge from a subterranean hiding place in his native Yugoslavia and be told that there is no Yugoslavia any more". While acknowledging that "the politics of Underground have been assailed and dissected by international audiences", she feels that "this debate is largely specious as theres no hidden agenda to this robust and not terribly subtle tale of duplicity with Mr. Kusturicas central idea being a daringly blunt representation of political chicanery that fools an entire society, and of the corruption that lets one man thrive at the expense of his dearest friend".


4.2. Reception Political response

Critics saw the characters Marko and Blacky as "Kusturicas idealization of Serbs trapped into desperate acts by history and others evil while the cowardly characters in the film were Croats and Bosnians, who chose betrayal and collaboration."

Stanko Cerovic, director of the Serbo-Croatian editorial department of Radio France Internationale, strongly denounced the film in June 1995, accusing Kusturica of spreading Serbian propaganda, using historical footage in cases except "the bombardment of Vukovar, or the three-year-long destruction of his native city by the Serbian army". However, in 2012 Cerovic said that it was not propaganda and "Its quite possible that Underground will age well".

Throughout the 1990s, Kusturica was frequently attacked by French public intellectuals Bernard-Henri Levy and Alain Finkielkraut in the French media over his life and career choices. Generally, the two adopted the Bosnian Muslim official nationalist view of Kusturica as a "traitor who crossed over to the enemy side thus turning his back on his city, his ethnic roots, and his nation". Finkielkraut had not seen the film, but wrote in Liberation "that offensive and stupid falsification of the traitor taking the palm of martyrdom had to be denounced immediately". Meanwhile, Levy called Kusturica a "fascist author" while reserving his further judgment upon seeing the film. After watching Underground, Levy called Kusturica a "racist genius in the mold of Louis-Ferdinand Celine" Other intellectuals such as Andre Glucksmann and Peter Handke joined the debate.

During the September 2008 discussion between the Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek and Bernard-Henri Levy on the issues surrounding the historical and social significance of May 1968 in France, Zizek brought up Underground and Kusturica to Levy by saying: Underground I think is one of the most horrible films that Ive seen. What kind of Yugoslav society you see in Kusturicas Underground? A society where people all the time fornicate, drink, fight - a kind of eternal orgy." Levy answered that he considers himself an "enemy of Kusturica, the man", but that Underground is "not a bad movie" before going on to commend the films narrative structure and conclude that "Kusturica is one of the cases, we have some writers like this, where the man is so, so, so more stupid than his work". Bosnian-American novelist Aleksandar Hemon criticized Underground in 2005, saying that it downplayed Serbian atrocities by "presenting the Balkan war as a product of collective, innate, savage madness."


4.3. Reception Accolades

Underground won the Palme dOr Golden Palm award at the 1995 Cannes Film Festival, considered the festivals highest honor. It was director Emir Kusturicas second such award after When Father Was Away on Business. Underground was selected as the Serbian entry for the Best Foreign Language Film at the 68th Academy Awards, but was not accepted as a nominee.


5. Libel lawsuit

On 8 March 2001, Serbian newsmagazine Vreme published an op-ed piece by Serbian playwright Biljana Srbljanovic under the headline "Hvala lepo" in which she refers to Underground in passing as "being financed by Milosevic" and accuses Kusturica of being "an immoral profiteer". She goes on to accuse the director of "directly collaborating with the regime via his friend Milorad Vucelic". On 20 March 2001, Kusturica decided to sue Srbljanovic for libel.

Before the first court date in September 2001, Vreme magazine organized a mediation attempt between the two parties, with Kusturica and Srbljanovic meeting face to face in the magazines offices. At the meeting Kusturica expressed willingness to drop the charges if Srbljanovic issues a public apology, which Srbljanovic refused. The next day at the first court date Srbljanovic once again rejected the offer of a public apology. The court case thus continued with Kusturicas lawyer Branislav Tapuskovic presenting details of the films financing sources, most of which were French production companies. On 11 December 2003, the municipal court ruled in Kusturicas favour, ordering Srbljanovic to pay the damages as well as to cover the court costs.

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