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Movie Review: Underground -- I'm going to the basement. Tell me when the war is over.


Directed by Emir Kusturica.

Written by Dusan Kovacevic and Emir Kusturica.

Starring Miki Manojlovic, Lazar Ristovski, Mirjana Jokovic, Slavko Stimac, Ernst Sttzner, Srdjan Todorovic, Mirjana Karanovic, Milena Pavlovic, Danilo Stojkovic, Bora Todorovic, Davor Dujmovic.

By Vladimir V. Zelevinsky
Staff Reporter

Two years after winning the Golden Palm (the top prize) at the Cannes Film Festival, Yugoslavian director Emil Kusturica's Underground finally makes it to Boston. It was definitely worth the wait.

Underground is an epic tragi-farce, a true masterpiece, a kind of movie that appears only once in a few years, and which leaves the viewers entranced and transfixed. It is vastly entertaining, grabbing and holding your attention for the full three hours.

Underground begins with the blaring sounds of a brass band, madly running through the dark streets of Belgrade at night. The year is 1941, WWII is raging in Europe, and two buddies, Marco and Blacky, are drunk while celebrating Blacky joining the Communist party. The next day the Germans bomb the city, and the city zoo suffers the worst. The scenes of the escaped and wounded animals roaming the streets look like something from 12 Monkeys.

Marco and Blacky form a resistance party, ostensibly with the purpose of stealing weapons from the Germans, but they're clearly more interested in drinking, fighting over a woman, and selling stolen weapons for profit. After a raid, they're ambushed and forced to run for their lives. They hide in a huge basement of Marco's house, along with their families, friends, and the surviving animals from the zoo, forming a somewhat less-than-idyllic Noah's arc. So they stay in the basement, making weapons and preparing to emerge from underground some day and defeat the Nazis, while Marco remains above, selling the weapons, providing the food, romancing Blacky's sweetheart, and generally having fun.

Then the war ends, and Marco realizes that he likes his existence and the profits he keeps from the weapons sales. So he decides not to tell the people in the basement that the war is over.

And they stay in the basement for a long time. A really long time. And when the underground people finally emerge in the 1990s, they see that Marco was right - and that the war rages on.

This movie's span and power resemble Schindler's List - if it were written by Monty Python. During its rapidly-paced three hours, it barely gives a chance for the audience to relax, rushing along with the power of a drunk elephant, from 1941 to 1944 to 1961 to 1991 to infinity. It throws at the viewer everything, including the kitchen sink, employing elaborate set pieces, musical numbers, breathtaking images, and a sharp sense of the national identity of Yugoslavia ("The Country That Was") and its historical destiny. Simultaneously shocking and entrancing, it clearly proves that the history repeats itself: once as a tragedy, and a second time - also as a tragedy.

As an added bonus, the movie is shown in the Coolidge Corner Movie Theater. The screen is huge (unlike the mostly postcard-sized screens at Loews), and the room feels like a flashback to days long gone.