"This world is a comedy to those that think, a tragedy to those that feel," Horace Walpole wrote in 1776. I wonder what the English writer would have said about Emir Kusturica's Underground, which feels like a comedy but is, I think, a tragedy. One can hardly make a movie about the former Yugoslavia without hitting some tragic notes, of course, but most of the notes in Underground are anything but tragic. That includes the musical notes, which are played by an Eastern European mariachi band that follows the main characters everywhere; the movie's menacingly festive score is like something out of a Fellini movie. Kusturica, one of the most boldly entertaining directors working today, has reimagined the last six decades of Yugoslavian history as a drunken party followed by a drunken brawl, with about 40 years of sleeping it off in between. "Once upon a time, there was a country," the movie's voice-over narrator announces, as if we're being launched into a fairy tale. Actually, Underground is closer to an allegory--an allegory that often abandons realism for magic realism. When the movie opens, in 1941, Marco (Miki Manojlovic) and Blacky (Lazar Ristovski) are a pair of small-time hoods who've just joined the Communist Party. Then the German army comes to town. Marco and Blacky are united in their hatred of the Nazis and their love for Vera (Mirjana Karanovic), an actress who, like the Jeanne Moreau character in Jules and Jim, can't decide which man she's in love with. Blacky is so earthy and direct, a real comrade, but Marco, as Vera points out late in the movie, lies so beautifully. Marco's biggest lie is a real humdinger: He convinces Blacky and other partisans to stay underground for 40 years, supposedly on Tito's orders. Those 40 years just happen to correspond to Yugoslavia's flirtation with communism, a period that Underground would have us believe was like Rip Van Winkle's nap. Kusturica and his co-scenarist, Dusan Kovacevic, have divided the movie into three eras, which they label "The War," "The Cold War" and "The War," as if the Cold War was just a strange interlude in a part of the world that has been beating itself up for hundreds of years. But Kusturica is less interested in history repeating itself than in history repeating itself as farce. Underground is both riotous and, in places, riotously funny--a comedy so deeply black that you almost feel the need to wipe yourself off afterwards. Luckily, Kusturica's been graced with some great comedic actors. Manojlovic and Karanovic, in particular, are absurdly amusing as the Mao and Madame Mao of Yugoslavia's Cultural Devolution. I couldn't always make the connections between the personal and the political in Underground, which separates me from certain commentators who see the movie--Part Three, in particular--as pro-Serbian propaganda. If it is, then it's the only propaganda I've ever seen that drew on the Theater of the Absurd to make its points. After the movie got French intellectuals hurling bons mots at one another, its release in the United States was held up for two years, and another year has gone by before its arrival in Madison. Kudos to the International Film Series, the UW Cinematheque and the Madison Film Forum for making sure it got here at all. (It screens for free on Sunday, Oct. 18, at 7:30 p.m. in 4070 Vilas Hall.) And kudos to Emir Kusturica, who did what great film directors have always done--transmuted the harsh, messy realities of life into art. Not that life, in this case, is paying attention. "This story has no ending," the movie concludes, some three years before the fighting began in Kosovo. Is he or isn't he?"
That seems to be the only question Hollywood cares about when it comes to "gay" issues. The guy on "Veronica's Closet." (Notice title.) Will on "Will & Grace." (Notice title.) The object of her affection in The Object of My Affection. (Notice title.) If this is all part of some grand coming-out process, then I wish someone would turn the closet light on. It's dark in here. Oh, and one other thing: You mean to tell me the David Hyde Pierce character on "Frasier" isn't gay? Uh, right.