Underground [Blu-ray]
Blu-ray A - America - Kino Lorber
Review written by and copyright: Eric Cotenas (8th February 2018).
The Film

Palme d'Or: Emir Kusturica (won) - Cannes Film Festival, 1995
César (Best Foreign Films): Emir Kusturica (nominated) - César Awards, 1996
NSFC Award (Best Foreign Language Film): Underground (nominated) - National Society of Film Critics Awards 1998
NYFCC Award (Best Foreign Language Film): Underground (nominated) - New York Film Critics Circle Awards 1997

Members of the local communist party solely for the purpose of drinking and carousing the nights away, best friends Marko (Criminal Lovers' Miki Manojlovic) and Petar "Blacky" Popova (Casino Royale's Lazar Ristovski) turn to war profiteering as soon as the Germans bomb and invade Belgrade. Shaking down local businesses and stealing arms ostensibly to and arm their partisan comrades while putting their families, Marko and Blacky live it up with their families – Marko's stuttering zookeeper brother Ivan (Three Summer Days' Slavko Stimac) and his orphaned monkey Somi, Blacky's infant son Jovan after his wife Vera (A Good Wife's Mirjana Karanovic) dies in childbirth, as well as Marko's extended family – conveniently shut away in a secret cellar for their protection and doing the labor of assembling the weapons for sale on the black market. When Blacky discovers his stage actress mistress Natalija (Time of Miracles' Mirjana Jokovic) has been seeing German officer Franz (Frantz's Ernst Stötzner), he attempts to assassinate his rival and manages to whisk Natalija off into only semi-consensual matrimony before he is captured by the Germans. An electric company lineman, Blacky has built up a tolerance to electric shocks and withstands torture and interrogation in time to be busted out of the hospital by Marko along with Natalija's crippled brother Bata (When Father Was Away on Business's Davor Dujmovic). Unfortunately, Marko has fallen for Natalija and cooks up a plan which involves seriously injuring Blacky – by tossing a grenade into the trunk in which he is being secreted – and taking him down to the cellar to be attended by the others who believe that they were attacked by the Germans. When the allied forces bomb Belgrade and the Germans depart, Marko and his common law wife keep up the charade with recovered Blacky remaining in hiding – along with his growing son Jovan (A Serbian Film's Srdjan Todorovic) – all the way from World War II to the Cold War under the impression that the Germans are still in power. Meanwhile, Marko has become a close friend and advisor to President Tito and gone from profiteer to poet laureate who has rewritten history through patriotic poems and a script in production starring Natalija that celebrates the life and murder of great national hero Petar "Blacky" Popova by German firing squad. Behind this newfound respectable existence, however, Marko is now supplying illegal arms to other parties and maintaining the ruse of continuing German occupation to Blacky and the others in the cellar by means of audio recordings and sound effects while maintaining surveillance on their operations through an optical device. Off camera, Natalija – who Blacky believes has only recently returned from a concentration camp where she was brutalized and raped repeatedly – is an alcoholic who finds herself alternately attracted to and repulsed by Marko's lies and Blacky's genuine patriotism. On the night of Jovan's wedding to Jelena (Milena Pavlovic), a cousin whom he has spent the last twenty years with underground, a drunken Natalija is on the verge of spilling the truth to Blacky before he discovers that Marko's relationship with his wife is more than platonic. What Marko does not know is that Blacky, tired of waiting on the orders of his best friend ostensibly passing messages along to the great hero from Tito, and Jovan have been building a tank for the last several years and are planning to break out and end the war for good. The repercussions of that night will influence the course of the country's subsequent history to the bitter end when Yugoslavia ceased to be.

"War is not war until brother kills brother," is Marko's epiphany late in the film, but it was actually a running theme throughout the film from the betrayal of blood relations to best friends to fellow countrymen, with Marko and Blacky accusing others of collaboration as a justification for shaking them down for money and goods or just to visit ill-treatment upon anyone from Natalija's pompous co-star to a theater guest Marko literally robs blind. Natalija, on the other hand, acts as much out of self-interest as her concern for her brother for whom Franz is not only able to get medicine but plans to send him to a clinic in Austria which should save him from being sent to the concentration camps. Although a swindler and unfaithful to his wife with Natalija, Blacky spends his long recovery raising his son – and warping him more than a bit – while also developing a newfound patriotism through Marko's deception and believing the he is indeed still manufacturing arms for the partisans rather than Marko's profit. Tragedy comes at the end as one blood brother realizes he has been deceived all this time, and then Blacky on the opposite side of the Serb and Croat conflict of Marko (who has returned to the country to sell his services) orders a pair of captured war profiteers to be executed on site without knowing who they are. Writer/director Emir Kusturica made an international splash with Time of the Gypsies and while his follow-up feature Arizona Dream went through a protracted production and delayed release, he was a filmmaker of note at the right time in the mid-nineties for independent studio films as French company CiBy 2000 was attaining international recognition of its own backing films from David Lynch (Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me subsequently Lost Highway), Pedro Almodovar (The Flower of My Secret and Live Flesh), Wim Wenders's The End of Violence, and Mike Leigh's Secrets & Lies along with the surprise award winners from relative then-unknowns The Piano from Jane Campion and Muriel's Wedding from P.J. Hogan. In this case, CiBy backed a fourteen milion dollar Serbian-French-German-Bulgarian-Czech-Hungarian co-production which would go out internationally as a three-hour feature film and play in Yugoslavia and France additionally as a five-episode five-and-a-half-hour television miniseries. In spite of the cynicism and the grotesque (and occasionally surreal) approach to the history of his country – which also incorporates the use of stock footage with Marko, Natalija, and Blacky inserted through mismatched cutaways or appearing before front projection in a deliberately artificial manner – Kusturica demonstrates a love for a Yugoslavia that once was and could still be, as a suddenly articulate Ivan tells the camera "With pain, sorrow and joy, we shall remember our country, as we tell our children stories that start like fairytales: Once upon a time, there was a country…" (the latter line echoing the Serbo-Croat title of the miniseries version).

Video

Released theatrically and on DVD in the US in its theatrical cut from New Yorker – the latter a PAL-converted anamorphic transfer with 2.0 audio and a three-minute interview with the director – and direct to home video and then DVD in the UK by Artificial Eye (with 5.1 audio and a behind the scenes featurette), Underground hit Blu-ray first in the latter territory through BFI featuring the theatrical cut in HD on a Blu-ray and the miniseries and extras split between two DVDS. Kino Lorber's package is similar, featuring a high-bitrate 1080p24 MPEG-4 AVC 1.85:1 widescreen encode of the theatrical cut from the same TF1 master featuring trilingual opening credits (Serbo-Croat/French/English) and bilingual end credits (French/English). The opening looks deliberately drab given the setting but detail is strong, and more saturated colors pop off the screen when they show up (mostly worn by Natalija along with occasional splashes of blood). The miniseries is divided into five episodes split between two dual-layer DVDs. The master is not new with plenty of ringing on brickwork in the exteriors, and the image is windowboxed at 1.78:1 with mattes on all four sides. Although the audio is Serbo-Croat Dolby Digital 2.0, the master is the French broadcast version with opening and closing French credits (including French dubbing credits for the three leads) as well as French-language recaps at the start of episodes two through five.

Audio

Audio for the theatrical version includes DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 and 2.0 stereo. Underground was an early Dolby Digital title mixed in LCRS surround and matrixed on the optical track and either matrixed or discrete on the digital track (hence the "Spectral Recording" and "Dolby Stereo" logos with "Digital" underneath the logo like a number of European titles from the late nineties). The stems were used to remix the film into 5.1 for home video. Since a lot of the film's music has an onscreen source with the brass band that follows the protagonists around, a lot of it is not so directional but the percussion and high notes reach the surrounds and LFE while the rest of the scoring has more spread. Sound design includes directional effects from explosions, gunfire, and atmosphere but the mix is more conservative than the average blockbuster though still immersive. Optional English subtitles are free of any errors.

Extras

While there are no new extras, the ones on disc three combine those available on various earlier editions. An entire submenu of behind the scenes footage starts off with B-Roll of the Wedding Party (1:41) which is self-explanatory, the Cannes: Party After the Screening (3:02) features Kusturica and the cast celebrating with the film's brass band in attendance along with some comments from the director about the audience's response and his feelings about Yugoslavia's international political reputation (hoping the film educates as well as engages), Emir Kusturica: Director (9:18) which features a montage of behind the scenes interactions before he makes some brief talking head comments. The same goes for Lazar Ristovski: "Blacky" (4:22), Mirjana Jokovic: "Natalija" (4:40), Miki Manojlovic: "Marko" (4:33), and Miljen "Kreka" Kljakovic: Production Designer (7:13) with the latter three speaking English. The most substantial extra is "Shooting Days" (75:42), a 1996 making-of documentary of odd origin with Serbo-Croat text, French credits, and English narration covering the development of the project, some context of Yugoslavian history, more on the expansive production design, the shoot, and more comments from the cast and crew. The Blu-ray and DVD both include the theatrical trailer (1:08). Also tucked into the case is a booklet with an essay by Giorgio Bertellini.

Overall

 


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