Podzemlje

PodzemljeSynopsis: A great circus full of tragicomic satire, Underground is a visionary masterpiece where hope, laughter and the joy of living overcome the difficulties of survival.

In the midst of war, Marko and Blacky – two opportunistic buddies sharing a spirited lust for women, booze and madcap brawling – attain riches and heroic praise dealing arms to the war’s resistance fighters. When things get too hot, they move into an intricate cellar packed with refugees whom Marko encourages to manufacture the contraband. With Blacky convinced he should remain hidden in the cellar until the war ends, Marko conspires to leave him there as he grows richer from the toils of the people living underground.

Over fifteen years pass before a web of lies unfolds and Blacky emerges from the shelter to seek his revenge.

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Podzemlje 8.0

eyelights: the infectious humour. the zaniness of the story.
eyesores: the war-related elements.

“A war is no war until the brother kills his brother.”

‘Podzemlje’ is an epic-length Serbian film that takes place in Yugoslavia from World War II to the Yugoslav Wars of the 1990s. It follows the stories of two friends, Petar and Marko, a couple of fun-loving rogues who fight against the Nazi regime in Belgrade by smuggling weapons and valuables to help the insurgency – with the help of friends and family, evidently.

Unfortunately, after boldly attacking a German officer who is making moves on a woman that they’re both sweet on, Petar is caught and tortured. He is eventually freed by Marko, and is left in an underground shelter to heal from his wounds. The shelter is a hiding place for most of the people that they know, who are hiding away from the Germans and making weapons for their militia.

Marko has other plans for all of them, however: he intends to take advantage of their war efforts for profit.

And this is where the title, which means “underground” comes into play. After this incident, spends Marko spends years pretending that the war is still going on so that all these underground dwellers remain hidden and unaware of the truth – thus, this way, he can continue to use them as slave labour and make fortunes off of their backs, all the while using his clout to become a national champion.

Obviously, this cannot endure, and eventually all goes to hell in a hand-basket.

My gf had long wanted me to see this Golden Palm-winner. Unfortunately, it’s extremely difficult to find; the DVD’s been out of print for ages. At one point she tried to order a second-hand copy of it on VHS as a gift for me, but ended up with ‘Dom za vešanje’. She was disappointed, but I promised I would try to find it somewhere.

I eventually was able to track down a rental copy of ‘Podzemlje’ on DVD and copied it for her (if it’s no longer available I’m not embarrassed to copy for personal use – What else am I to do? But I almost always buy it when it’s in circulation again). As excited as she was to show me this masterpiece, it stayed on the shelf for a couple of years.

One night, for lack of any other options, we suddenly remembered that it was sitting there, unwatched. We had three hours to kill and promptly popped it in the DVD player. What I discovered was a unique and pleasing mixture of historical drama, action, quirky humour, and political satire – elements one rarely finds so successfully blended together.

Director and co-writer Emir Kusturica made this film as a satirical take on Yugoslav history. However, some critics claims that he has brought to the film a certain bias, making the picture controversial at the time. The main objection that people had was the portrayal of the Serbs as the victims of circumstance, while the Bosnians and Croats were often the bad guys.

Honestly, I know far too little on the subject to even attempt to discuss the issues in any relevant way. In fact, that also limits my appreciation of the film, because most of the satirical and metaphorical material was likely lost on me. No matter how deep the film might be, I could only watch it in a  two-dimensional fashion, which is likely not doing it justice.

From that perspective, I thought that ‘Podzemlje’ was an excellent film. I enjoyed the story, the way it was developed and simply adored the notion that a whole group of people could be tricked into believing that the war is still going on like that. That’s so unusual. I also found the performances pretty good, with the actors able to navigate drama and comedy relatively well.

On a production level, I thought it was a really well-made film, which I found surprising given its origin – I would have expected that having a low budget would invariably make the picture look cheap. However, Kusturica was able to make this film with the assistance of the Radio Television of Serbia and rented actual army equipment and costumes for authenticity.

The problem for me is that I rarely find war-related films engrossing; as great as they may be, only a handful have left such a lasting impression on me that it makes me want to go back for more. ‘The Bridge Over the River Kwai’ is one of them. ‘Casualties of War’ is another. ‘Paths of Glory‘ is most definitely on that list. ‘Podzemlje’, however, isn’t.

It’s not to say that it’s not a terrific movie; it most certainly is. I might even go so far as to say that it’s likely far superior to my own assessment of it, given my limited understanding of the film’s context. But, like ‘Platoon’, ‘Schindler’s List’ and even ‘Apocalypse Now’ (which I recognize as great films), after having seen them once, I don’t really feel the need to see them again.

In the case of ‘Podzemlje’, though, there’s a pretty good chance that I will give it another go someday: the film was also released on Serbian television as a 6-part,  5-hour miniseries under the title of ‘Bila jednom jedna zemlja’ (or “Once Upon a Time There Was a Country”). Sadly, this version has only been released on home video in France, on VHS tapes.

One day I will watch ‘Podzemlje’ again, I have no doubt of it; it will surely be released on DVD or BD at some point. I would love to see what the story is like, fully fleshed out, at twice the length with 36 additional or expanded scenes! For now, though, I am content to have finally seen the theatrical version. While it hasn’t changed my world, it has opened my eyes to a filmmaker I would otherwise have passed over.

And, based on ‘Podzemlje’, Emir Kusturica is not one I would have wanted to miss.

Post scriptum: for more information on this elusive longer version, please visit the veritably detailed http://www.kustu.com/w2/en:underground_long_version

Date of viewing: September 15, 2013

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