On Underground (Emir Kusturica, 1995)


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In April of 2020, a friend called me from Los Angeles to tell me that Chris had killed himself. Someone had found him in his Venice apartment. We had all gone to film school together in the late 1990s—I somewhat incidentally, the others more intentionally. Chris was from working-class Palo Alto, darkly handsome, a talented muralist, of Polish and Italian lineage, the oldest of two brothers. Film school and Los Angeles don’t tend to be cradles of virtue, but I don’t remember Chris ever being petty or cruel.

The spring before we started film school, Emir Kusturica, the Bosnian Serbian director, won the Palme d’Or at Cannes for his film Underground, a great, raucous, three-hour saga that tracked from the opening salvos of World War II in the Balkans to the Bosnian War that obliterated even the concept of Yugoslavia. Kusturica previously made Time of the Gypsies and followed with Black Cat, White Cat, films that were so lush, kinetic, and narratively outrageous that they teased the line between a faithful representation of reality—repudiating sanitized and formulaic Hollywood—and an incorrigible embrace of the absurd. I remember those films as revelations, works of art that showed what was possible. Chris loved Underground in particular.

Hoping to evoke his presence, I rewatched the film recently. I hadn’t seen it in twenty-five years. The story is a love triangle between two friends, Marko and Blacky, grifters who’ve allied with Tito’s communist resistance, and Natalija, the star of the Belgrade stage. At first Marko and Blacky seem practically indistinguishable from each other, but when Marko usurps Natalija from Blacky, he reveals him-self to be duplicitous in a way Blacky is not. Marko orchestrates an elaborate ruse to convince Blacky and others hiding from the Nazis that the war isn’t over. They live for twenty years in a cellar, manufacturing arms for the resistance and awaiting orders to emerge and liberate their country. Meanwhile, Marko becomes a hero of the Tito regime, celebrated for his socialist-realist doggerel. If history is either tragedy or farce, Kusturica chooses farce without denying the tragedy. Terrible things happen, people are tortured and killed, or die of illness, mishap, or by their own hand, but Kusturica is a master of tone and keeps the film mostly buoyant. The action is slapstick. A brass band provides frenzied accompaniment for scenes of banquet and battle. Like a great writer who seizes an opportunity in every sentence, Kusturica fills each frame with something bold and emotionally arresting. The hero of the film is ultimately Blacky since he personifies its spirit: though he suffers betrayal, disappointment, and loss, he succumbs to neither cynicism nor despair.

I saw Chris in Blacky, and not just because he physically resembled the actor who played the part. They shared qualities of exuberance, generosity, and charisma. Or that is how I remembered Chris. I hadn’t seen or spoken to him in two years before he died. Another friend learned that a failed business venture had obliged him to sell his grandfather’s farm, that a childhood ailment had come back to plague him, and that he had been hospitalized in a psychiatric ward for a time. And yet my naive response to seeing the film was that if Chris had only watched it again it could have banished the darkness and kept him alive.

If this is a fantasy, it is a fantasy shared by the film itself. Underground concludes by doing something that only film can, bringing the dead back to life. The final scene is another banquet. The brass band plays. All of Blacky’s departed relatives and friends are at the table. All is forgiven but not forgotten, Blacky tells Marko and Natalija, as the grassy promontory on which they are perched breaks away and drifts out to sea.

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David Bezmozgis is the author of Natasha and Other Stories, The Free World, The Betrayers, and Immigrant City. He has written and directed two feature films and was a screenwriter on the animated feature, Charlotte. David lives in Toronto and is the creative director of the Humber School for Writers.