Underground (1995) is an epic Serbian tale showing the history of Yugoslavia in full satiric glory, from the Second World War, up until the Yugoslav War in 1992 – hence the three parts of the film, War; Cold War; and War. It doesn’t, as some critics have claimed, forward a pro-Serbian view of the Yugoslav conflict (including animosities during WWII), because it is pretty true art, and so treats everyone pretty much the same.
What probably made this film a prize winner (certainly not its length — 163 minutes in theatrical release, with a threatened director’s cut of 320 minutes) is the lack of distinction between the real and the surreal and the slowly layered comedy, which culminates after about two hours and fifteen minutes in a punch line – delivered by Hark Bohm as it happens – as he plays a slightly drunk and carless psychiatric doctor.
Hark Bohm’s appearance is short in Underground, and as he delivers the film’s punch line, it is appropriate that he cannot stop laughing. Everything he says about Yugoslavia in those two minutes is both hilariously true, and simultaneously very sad. Yes; Yugoslavia by the 1990s was Europe’s mental patient; conflicted, pun as it is, it is a very strong term but completely accurate, especially if you take Underground’s view of history..
The film also seems to confirm what Serbian cinema (for those of us who haven’t seen much of it) must be like; rambunctious; catastrophic; and with a huge amount of buffoonery. Typically, the film didn’t travel, and it was and has continued to be little viewed and reviewed out of the region; a pity, because it is good enough a movie to be a profound life-experience in itself.
It’s possible that we think we know better; or that we have too many of our own good films to watch; but that would not be true. There are actors, scenes and writing in the movie that far surpasses anything the UK and US mainstream has to offer. It’s sad to see that an actress like Mirjana Jokovic (immense in Underground; startling, funny and talented beyond compare) could only muster a small role as a maid in the Jennifer Lopez vehicle Maid in Manhattan, when she attempted to leave the confines of Serbia and act on the larger cinematic stage.
But that’s the ways of art and culture for you. Underground is long and involving, so funny, that you may want to talk about it for weeks to come. It is the work of a visionary humourist and too much the work of art to be construed as propaganda of any sort. It is a story of betrayal, between friends and peoples, and is nothing short of the complete history of an expired nation. Of course you’ll read negative reviews of this film, because it steps on so many people’s feet; but it is endlessly and creatively funny, and there is no doubt that it is one of the best made and completely entertaining films of the 1990s. It is an immense film, truly immense; so be not scared of the length.