Yugoslavia Changes Take Place `Underground'

Movie review XXX "Underground," with Miki Manojlovic, Lazar Ristovski, Mirjana Jokovic, Slavko Stimac. Directed by Emir Kusturica, from a script by Kusturica and Dusan Kovacevic, based on Kovacevic's play. Varsity, today through Sunday. 168 minutes. "R" - Restricted because of violence, language, brief sexuality.

Two and a half years after it took the top prize at the Cannes Film Festival, Emir Kusturica's allegorical black comedy about the former Yugoslavia has been booked for a three-day run at the Varsity.

Almost half an hour shorter than when it received the award, "Underground" is still a rich, vibrant, visually spectacular survey of the changes the place has gone through during the past 50 years. It begins in 1941, with the first German bombing of Belgrade, and follows two families through Tito's reign and the breakup of the country in the 1990s.

Right from the beginning, Kusturica has an absurdist take on conflict. We see the bombing from the viewpoint of bewildered, stuttering Ivan (Slavko Stimac), a zookeeper who watches in disbelief as his animals panic and die. He also bonds with a frightened chimpanzee who becomes a lifelong pal.

The bombing disrupts a Communist Party parade attended by Ivan's older brother, Comrade Marko (Miki Manojlovic), who talks his best friend, Blacky (Lazar Ristovski), into a scheme that will get them through the war. Beneath the home of Marko's grandfather, they establish a profitable weapons-making factory run by their families and neighbors.

Although the Nazis finally depart, Marko convinces Blacky and the others that war is still raging, and for more than a decade they continue with business as usual, even building a tank for Marko, who has become friendly with Tito. Eventually a bomb destroys Marko's house and the deception is exposed, but Blacky and the others emerge into a civil war - and the shooting of a movie that celebrates Blacky's martyrdom as a resistance hero!

For the most part, Kusturica shows Marko's "cellar slaves" having a festive time; the film's big set piece is a subterranean wedding party. In interviews, he has compared them to Yugoslav citizens who managed to survive the Tito years by convincing themselves they were living the good life. The film ends with another party, staged on a piece of land that splits off from the mainland and becomes a floating island.

Born in 1955 in Sarajevo, Kusturica won the same Cannes prize 12 years ago for "When Father Was Away on Business," which also earned an Academy Award nomination and had considerably more success at American art houses.

It's easy to see why the reception has been chillier this time. "Underground" is a sprawling, sometimes indulgent movie, without the sympathetic child hero who made "Father" so easy to like. French critics have accused it of being nothing more than Serbian propaganda, and for awhile Kusturica responded to such criticisms by threatening to retire.

But this is still compelling epic filmmaking, and quite a step up from Kusturica's 1993 American misfire, "Arizona Dream," with Johnny Depp and Jerry Lewis. In spite of the retirement talk, he's completed another picture: "Cat Black, Cat White."