Like a flash of incandescent light that’ll burn your eyebrows off while staring into your soul, Emir Kusturica’s Underground is the film Roberto Benigni’s Life is Beautiful wishes it was. Even more indebted to a theoretically cloying magical realism than Life and yet so disturbed and delectably flaring in its madcap intersection of styles, Underground is a paean to not only human life but cinematic life excavated in the death throes of crisis. Imagine if you will Vittorio De Sica directing Abbott and Costello with a script written by Billy Wilder with Benny Hill on trombone just in case, all of whom were alternately inebriated and cocaine-addled during the production, and the beguiling war-time-as-apocalypse-rave-as-long-cavern-of-the-soul milieu of Underground is at least intimated in your ear.
It’s never fully understood though – a smiling, unblinkered rapscallion like Kusturica’s behemoth of a motion picture isn’t meant to be understood but dealt with. A spellbinding, breaking-at-the-hinges parable of humanistic destruction enshrined in a uniquely self-destructive work of cinema, Underground is a never-capitulating animal of a human desecration parable that burrows past its should-be-trivializing metaphors. Underneath those metaphors, in more concealed tunnels, it discovers beauty as well as terror in chaos and enshrining both not in narrative or leaden characters but in the whirlygust of its cinematic form teetering between undoctored life and unmitigated death. Deeply volatile and unstable at the level of cinematic form and tone, Underground reconstitutes war imagery as a keg of dynamite that ricochets between party-animal and bombardier. Pandemonium is death, as well as a marker that you’re really living. It is a film that claws its way to the good in humanity by devouring the bad along with it.
One of the few modern films that genuinely deserves the adjective “irrepressible”, Kusturica’s implacable vision is perhaps also one of the few films so tonally and formally complex that a violently rejiggered German compound noun with appended meanings by the mouthful is the only way to truly follow it to its own death. In order to accept it, you have to be intoxicated by it. Brazen and brio-filled, Kusturica even survives the sort of engorged symbolism that would drown many a film. A film can overcome this sort of “one brother is Serbia, the other is Bosnia” strain is the form is up to snuff; symbolism can stun a film, but in Underground, the form is set to kill. Kusturica sets up symbols and then throws them to the lions of his cathartic, galvanic bedlam, not only careening around symbols that would stop the film dead in its tracks but weaponizing them.
For instance, and speaking of lions, an early image of a lion hugging a goose up until it masticates on its neck is a dead ringer for a metaphor for mutualism soured into parasitism, and for two previously accepting countries violently embalming the other. But the symbols are the real prey here. Kusturica’s predatory filmmaking unravels them, shifting them around until their roles are no longer pinpoints on a map but constantly vacillating spasms of meaning that refuse to be contained. Although the characters may map to one country or the other, they are all man-handled by the circus of the camera, transformed not into the frost-ridden totems of the film that remain still to the end but the shards of meaning trampled on by the stampede of the filmmaking. Symbolism is but one participant in this bar-room brawl of a film, and the free-associative electrons around it only enrage the symbols further.
Within this entropy, the lion and the goose are more apt, and more turbulent, as a gut-check about the shifting, mutable fluxional energy of life, which is Kusturica’s real artistic coup here in a film that is constantly evaporating and recrystallizing before our eyes. The animals do not represent chaos like curated exhibits the film otherwise controls; they are chaos, interrupting the film never to be seen again. The same can be said of any number of would-be symbols that, rather than sitting by as we absorb their embedded meaning through osmosis, throw their meaning into us like a carousel hitting us in the head again and again until we are positively screwy. These are wild and wooly symbols, like the two main brothers who threaten their symbolic status with their absurdist life and their live-for-the-moment ambitions, as well as the way Kusturica includes scenes that nominally have nothing to do with anyone’s symbolic status. Thereby, he perilously interrogates and even nullifies those statuses and tacitly evokes how the characters cannot be contained by the symbols another film might have them represent. The comic surrealism of the film, constantly exchanging environments, character roles, and objects before us, skewers the symbolism in the ribs, threatening to evolve into a new order where no image is reducible to any monolithic meaning. War dares to slide into slapstick farce, and, paradoxically, this centrifugal carousel slips into an unhinged nightmare. This is too unreasonable a film to be thawed out to a collection of metaphors, and it is all the better for it.
Unpredictable as a fact rather than a suggestion, Underground morphs from end-of-the-world shindig to murderously reframed theater in full-on melodramatic regalia upended by a shadow-suffused reference to The Third Man to angst-ridden, thorny comedy of the Charlie Chaplin mode. It’s a veritable tour de force of cinema, emphasis on the tour. Rather than literalizing the “hide the war” theme a la Life is Beautiful, where the narrative is “about” a man masquerading his son from the tragedy of life, Underground formalizes these dueling moods in the film’s always unbalanced emotions that revoke the idea that any one scene can be subsumed by any one rational emotion. For Benigni, tragedy was de rigueur and comedy a ruse, a necessary falsity that must be impressed or willfully appended to the horrors of life; in Underground, the moods are more fluxional, more hectic, more unknowable as they always invasively shift between each other without inherent meaning or conscious effort. Life is Beautiful epitomizes a doctrine of singular drama occasionally interrupted by another lateral plane of singular comedy, two tones that that exist on their own and happen to occupy the same film. One replaces the other. Scenes are either drama or comedy. In Underground, tone is an attack dog, something that can’t be singularized or reined in. It’s always hostile; no scene is flattened by an assumption that we ought to greet it with one particular emotional response.
All this, and the story still eludes the reader, perhaps for the better; Underground is a fascinatingly tangential film, a work of desperate beauty that discovers delight in the accidents of life, in the avoidance of a forward narrative thrust. I could write about how Blacky (Lazar Ristovski) and Marko (Miki Manojlovic) return to their Yugoslavian town on the eve of a German blitzkrieg, only for Marko to hide the two as well as Marko’s brother Ivan (Slavko Stimac), Blacky’s wife Vera (Mirjana Karanovic), and several others in a basement under the dense masquerade of still-propagating wartime. As it turns out, Marko is intimately aware that the war’s comeuppance has arrived, and his continual façade is rooted more in his desire to retain his impromptu business producing arms in his underground grotto and selling them to the top-soil public, a decision that ultimately instigates decades of friction between the two men.
But what really matters artistically about the film is the roguish friction of its delightfully fractured mise-en-scene and the treacherous push-and-pull of its dastardly vision of human fluctuation, its willingness to revel in the hyperbole of life until experience is threshed to a series of free-associative manias and hysterias that pay homage, and critique, the closet cinemas and fictions we institute and maintain for any and all foreseeable and unforeseeable reasons. The cacophonous sound entering the screen from who knows where, the continual suggestion of off-screen space as a beacon of hope and a premonition of horror, the spinning top of color and imagery that clutter and swirl around the screen – often bodily disorienting the screen with centrifugal force; these are Kusturica’s flaring, bubbling quivers of life, his shivers of existence pulling itself apart and until there’s nothing left for us to do but ride the cascading waves of experience. Even the more insidious and free-wheeling characters-with-historical-figures trick pulled off in Forrest Gump as a disguise to hide the timidity of the filmmaking is recontextualized as a more spirited gesture here. A journey from the clandestine to the carnivalesque, Underground is like a tropical storm and a torrential waterfall sweeping you away to the fountain of youth, a ticking time bomb of a film that keeps discovering new reasons to live.