What’s Three Reasons? A lazy version of Five Reasons of course. But then isn’t it an exact ripoff of the Criterion Collection YouTube videos? Yes, but I prefer the word homage. Anyways, enough chitchat let’s get down to business. This is a short article about Emir Kusturica’s Underground (original title: Podzemlje). This film won the Serbian auteur the top prize, the Palm d’Or, at the Cannes Film Festival that year.
Eastern European cinema is sort of a blind spot for me. For the longest time I’ve been putting it off, not really attracted to it feeling that this culture (much like African or South American culture) is too foreign and “unattractive” to me. Of course these prejudices are silly and there’s at least a good and relatable film from every corner of the world. I just have to look for them. Enough about that though, let’s talk about Underground.
Reason I: Perfect Genre Blending
One of my favorite things about Underground was how it’s so many genres in one. It’s funny, romantic, sad, sweet, silly, dead serious, heartbreaking, irreverent, dark, brutal, terrifying, endearing, hilarious, outrageous. I could go on and on. The main three genres are comedy, war and drama. However there’s romance, fantastical elements (I guess magical realism is the most appropriate term), but also historical, possibly (auto)biographical ones and even a bit of adventure. It’s a mystery to me how Kusturica manages to mix everything so well together. It really shouldn’t work, but it does.
Reason II: The Colorful Cast of Characters
Yes, the story is very engaging, but without realistic, relatable and remarkable characters a film will remain largely uninteresting. Underground‘s colorful cast of nutty characters are a big part of what makes the film worthwhile. You get to love and feel for all of them. They’re one big crazy, dysfunctional family. It’s almost like a Werner Herzog/Federico Fellini crossover. They’re crazy (the Herzog part), but the director loves them, is fascinated by them and feels they’re part of him (the Fellini part). The characters and their idiosyncrasies and quirks are also responsible for most of the humor/comedic moments in the film.
Reason III: Beauty in Unlikely Places
It’s quite inspiring how the director finds beauty (and humor) in the midst of one of the most horrible wars of the last century. There’s not another war film quite like this one. Usually, war films are some of my least favorite, but this one is different. The cinematography is subtle and tasteful. There’s one scene I enjoyed in particular: The one where the son watches the sun rise for the first time in his life. Just gorgeous. The Serbian folk music is fun (and funny) too. The costumes and sets are quite impressive as well, though bordering grotesque sometimes (but somehow it seems to works here).
All in all just a great movie I can only recommend. It’s definitely a cinematic milestone. I’m sure it inspired a lot of filmmakers, mainly Quentin Tarantino and Harmony Korine. I can totally see why. The film also comments on acting and filmmaking as a medium, craft and storytelling device. The story’s scope is so epic and encompasses so many themes of the human existence. It is my understanding that Kusturica wanted the film to be twice as long as the cut we got to see (which is already 3 hours). Even though a 3 hour film can be quite exhausting (or boring), Underground is always very entertaining to say the least.
Those are my three reasons. What are yours?