Balkan Shuffle

The Circus Is in Town: The slapstick troupe of Emir Kusturica's Underground.

The knottiness of this movie and its flawed people help it to avoid the White-Angel Witness syndrome that has spoiled liberal laments over the years--those movies in which the suffering of an actual person, like Steve Biko, is told indirectly in terms of how it affects a stable, middle-class audience surrogate. Rather than make his characters into heroes, Winterbottom lets them suffer along with the Bosnians when the peaceable world doesn't come to help. Henderson the reporter remains twitchy and confused to the end, and the suffering orphan herself is neither cute nor noble, just a weary little girl whose mother abandoned her--half from exhaustion, half because of the war.

Most of all, Winterbottom lets technique make its own complaints. He regularly interrupts the staged events with real stuff, most notably various news reports on world leaders who drag their feet on Bosnian aid or intervention. Hot alternative music tracks (get the bitchin' CD soundtrack, teens!) roar over events that aren't exactly danceable. Discordance, chaos, and the "moonlight at noon" that Underground frequently talks about are the hallmarks of this movie, and Winterbottom's way with it surpasses the show-offy, tossed-salad style of an Oliver Stone. In fact, Winterbottom matches the chaos-as-art approach taken by famed photojournalist Gilles Peress, whose book-long photo essay on Iran's Islamic revolution consists primarily of stylishly asymmetrical, confused images. (Peress has since done an Internet-based photo essay on Bosnia that's even more complex and angry.)

Anger shapes this chaos all the way to its obviously incomplete finish. Welcome to Sarajevo includes a Bosnian character, a talented cellist who sardonically vows to give a public concert only when his city has reached Number One on the United Nations' list of the world's worst crisis spots. Once the slaughter has earned Sarajevo that distinction, and by the time Sarah Ferguson's divorce from Prince Andrew has bumped Bosnia from the prime-time broadcast lead, Sarajevans get to have their concert. At this point, one character coldly warns the world, "Don't dream dreams."

Underground starts Friday at U Film Society.

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