Balkan Shuffle

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

Anger makes a powerful fuel for art. Ignite it and you've got a Guernica, several dozen Requiems, and shelves full of protest tunes. Anger can rage high and burn hot--but there's no guarantee that the art will equal the rage. There are more bad, forgotten protest songs than good, timeless ones.

Angry movies are a special and even rarer case: Between the first gasping shock of an event and its final creative treatment lie too many months and too many people. Hundreds of deliberate, well-intentioned but ultimately unstirring movies earn respect but don't transfer their rage to the audience. But it is possible to stoke the fire of anger, to regulate its heat all the way to the last frame. And here--mainly by coincidence, but also by inevitable fate--are two dedicated movies that stay angry all the way: Emir Kusturica's Underground and Michael Winterbottom's Welcome to Sarajevo.

Both are set in the clinically termed "former Yugoslavia," even though there's still a country by that name. Both movies wisely avoid the neat, rhythmic reenactments of docudrama, where typically the only twist on a predictable conclusion is playing the final violin solo in a different key. For a situation like the one still facing Serbs, Croats, and Muslims in that part of the world, such slick finality is the least appropriate narrative technique--too many centuries of side-by-side differences are in place, too many charges and countercharges are possible when it comes to placing blame for tragedy and cruelty.

Each movie chooses a distinctive, occasionally shocking route of storytelling. The Palme d'Or winner at Cannes in 1995, Underground goes for slapstick allegory with a trace of magic realism: It follows two randy, hard-drinking pals from Belgrade named Blacky (Lazar Ristovski) and Marko (Miki Manojlovic) as their country evolves around them, from the awful days of Nazi occupation to the just-as-awful days of civil war circa 1991. Only Marko realizes that time is passing, though, because he keeps Blacky and a whole cadre of communist resistance fighters building weapons in an elaborate cellar all those years, still believing that Hitler is on the doorstep and only Marshal Tito can keep him away.

Underground is named for where Blacky lives much of his life and where he unwittingly becomes a posthumous hero of the state; and "underground" denotes a state of mind, too. Kusturica's out-of-touch revolutionaries follow a stale ideology with clueless but happy loyalty. The fact that his heroes were black marketeers and petty crooks before all this started is revealing--Marko's manipulation of official public sentiment over his "dead" friend is not too different from selling overpriced whiskey or, for that matter, peddling bankrupt beliefs in a stagnant political market.

Where's the anger in all this? It's in the crazy-but-simple recognition that politics are corruptible and belief can be a lame product. As a schemer, Marko is both repellent and understandable; he survives, selfishly. Kusturica underscores this with a Forrest Gump-ish creative-history trick, inserting Marko into photos and film clips featuring much more famous (and real) people. At the same time, he makes wild symbolic parallels to war and disunity: a frenzied bombing in a zoo, a theater where a radical's onstage disruption is more "dramatic" than the fussy story being played, a movie reenactment that confuses one surprise visitor to the set.

Kusturica, a Serb who seems nostalgic for peaceful ethnic coexistence, doesn't do much with ethnic diversity, but he creates a kind of fools' unity in implausible geography. In addition to the cellar, there are other ideological micro-climates--a subterranean highway linking all of Europe, a piece of land that splits off in idealized secession. Another cultural unifier is music, with a noisy brass band frequently pumping out polkas and ballads as part of the party (not Party) atmosphere. It's in our face, and because it's inescapable it suggests an inverse relationship between noisy diversions and political determinism.

As many satirists would agree, it's better to celebrate a revolution than live with its aftermath. Where Underground applies nerve-scraping and loutish humor, Welcome to Sarajevo goes for bitter elegy, grief, and frustration over the aftermath of political failure. Its ostensible subjects are the slaughter of innocents (especially children) in Bosnia circa 1992 and the inability of some international TV correspondents to make the world care about this tragedy. Part of it is even based on one reporter's memoir, but Winterbottom wisely sets up multiple stories that function as strong, coexisting dramas rather than subplots. He's just as interested in the Bosnian intellectuals sucked into war as he is in Henderson (Stephen Dillane), the English reporter who valiantly adopts a Bosnian girl.

Energetic in its anger, Welcome to Sarajevo is more than a little subversive. Dillane's Henderson is a somber, driven, unstarlike figure, capable of ordering his cameraman to "get the vegetables" when they come across sniper victims at death's door. He's no screen icon, and neither are the characters played by two legitimate Hollywood actors, Woody Harrelson and Marisa Tomei. Harrelson plays a totally cynical and vain freelancer who alternately supports and insults his colleagues, while Tomei is a late-arriving relief worker ready to break protocol and risk everything just to get some orphans on a bus to safety. None of the people in this story, in fact, are "likable" in the conventional sense, nor are they idealized heroes. They face complex moral challenges and aren't perfect in their responses to them.

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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