Think of truly great war films. I bet Apocalypse Now springs to mind. Saving Private Ryan? Don't mind if you do. Pearl Harbour? Just kidding.
But if we said that any list of truly great war films should include Underground, chances are you don't have a clue.
Well 20 years after its Palm D'or win at Cannes; this astonishing film gets a new BFI Blu-ray release, offering both the 3-hour cinema and 6 part TV versions, giving us the chance to revel in this cinematic genius of the highest order.
Underground spans 1941 to 1992, outlining the war torn history of Yugoslavia, as it gets dragged into WW2, invaded by Nazis, liberated by the Communists, then enters the Cold War, only to have the country torn apart during the horrific Yugoslav Wars of the early 1990s. Against this fable-like backdrop of Yugoslavia's unenviable fate, we are presented with an extended family of characters, and we watch their own fates rise and fall with that of their country. At the same time, it's a brilliant work about film itself, especially when revealing how movies can distort the truth for the sake of entertainment or propaganda.
At the centre, black marketeers Marko (Miki Manojlovic) and Blacky (Lazar Ristovski) manufacture and sell weapons to the Communist resistance in WWII Belgrade. Theirs is the good life – drinking, gambling, womanizing and seemingly followed by their own crazy Balkan band, providing a live soundtrack to their reveling. Brilliant performances from the two leads make this friendship burst with energy and passion. But when Blacky is badly injured, Marko hides his friend in an underground shelter where other war-ravaged friends and family are hiding. Seizing upon this opportunity to steal Blacky's girlfriend and make himself rich via arms manufacture, Marko goes to great lengths to convince those underground that the war is not over, and they remain in the shelter for the next 20 years, as he becomes a high-ranking member of Tito's Communist party. Meanwhile, thought dead, Blacky is a national hero, and a film is in production about the lives of the two friends. But things can't stay underground forever...
Vast in its ambition, beautiful in its execution, allegorical in its intent, Underground is remarkable. Not only is it fantastically entertaining – funny, dramatic, thrilling and incredibly moving - its depiction of chaos and control, of politics as pragmatic and exploitative, of lives lived above and below the surface, grips entirely. Just in terms of imagination it astounds, as situations become increasingly surreal, for example, the actors playing their characters also play them in the film of their lives within the film, if you follow...
You'll laugh, you'll cry, get lost, find your way back, you'll think, and the final extraordinary scene is breathtaking. Whilst it isn't without its critics who, perhaps fairly, seek a more balanced political narrative, as a piece of filmmaking, it's hard to imagine ambition of this level actually managing to succeed, with only the phenomenal The Tin Drum coming to mind as a rival.
UNDERGROUND (1995) / CERT: 15 / DIRECTOR: EMIR KUSTURICA / SCREENPLAY: EMIR KUSTURICA, DUSAN KOVACEVIC / STARRING: MIKI MANOJLOVIĆ, LAZAR RISTOVSKI, MIRJANA JOKOVIĆ / RELEASE DATE: 29TH FEBRUARY