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Like the other films about Yugoslavia’s dissolution due to open in Washington soon, Emir Kusturica’s Underground attempts to convey the horror of that country’s civil war. But that’s not why the film, which won the Palme d’Or at Cannes more than two years ago, is so late arriving in the United States. Kusturica’s movie was originally judged too controversialalthough only a Bosnian or Serbian partisan could find Underground partisanas well as too long and too absurdist. Kusturica’s worst crime, apparently, was not taking a nonsensical war seriously enough.
Underground is divided into three parts, and only the last (and shortest) deals directly with the civil war. The film’s thesis is that the conflict began with the German invasion of Yugoslavia, which is where the action begins, and festered during the years of Communist rule, which compose the bulk of the story. When the Iron Curtain finally fell, it revealed 50 years of sublimated strife.
The movie opens in 1941, with thieves Marko (Miki Manojlovic) and Blacky (Lazar Ristovski) celebrating their new roles as communists. As a marching band plays, German planes began to bomb Belgrade. Explosions rock the zoo where Marko’s younger brother Ivan (Slavko Stimac) works, sending zoo animals into the streets. The scene suggests a deranged circus while it challenges the humanity of the viewer: Are the deaths of a few innocent animals more shocking than the former Yugoslavia’s casualties?
Ivan and a baby chimp are among the refugees who take shelter in a large cellar under Marko’s house. Blacky and Marko, meanwhile, turn their skills to plundering the Germans to further the resistance. Their activities are complicated by their shared love for actress Natalija (Mirjana Jokovic), a stereotypical embodiment of female fickleness who has also drawn the admiration of German officer Franz (Ernst Stotzner). Blacky is captured and tortured, then rescued by Marko, who takes his partner to the cellar to recuperate, then manages to keep him there for 20 years by telling him that the war is still going on. With his rival underground, Marko marries Natalija and becomes a official in the now-ruling Communist Party.
The second section of the film is the richest allegorically. The director portrays the years of Tito’s rule as the equivalent of being trapped in an underground chamber, unaware of the world and unable to deal with the implications of the war that, officially, never quite ended. While Blacky lives in ignorance, his son Jovan (Srdan Todorovic) grows to maturity; born underground, he exemplifies the clueless generation born under Communism and unaware of any other possibility.
Among Kusturica’s many satirical motifs is that Blacky and Marko cannot die; they survive tortures and explosions to appear again as the next chapter in the country’s bloody history recommences. In fact, the two also live again as fictional characters, in a film being made by the Tito regime to glorify the Communist resistance. (The actors in this movie, of course, are the same as in Kusturica’s.) Thus, when Blacky finally breaks free from the bunker, he stumbles into the set of the film of his life, confronting extras in Nazi uniforms. It’s just one of the ways the myth of World War II never ends in Underground’s farcical universe.
The final chapter finds Blacky and Marco reborn again, refighting their endless war in their now-fragmented Yugoslavia. “Fucking fascist motherfuckers,” remains Blacky’s refrain, although it’s no longer possible to tell who the fascists are. (When Underground was made, Kusturica was in favor of keeping Yugoslavia unified, thus putting him in opposition to all the major factions.) By the final scene, it’s also impossible to tell the dead from the living, and fantasy from reality. “This story has no end,” a narrator glumly reports of the ongoing fable, as the central characters party obliviously.
Aside from its want of partisanship, Underground is most controversial for its lack of solemnity. That hardly means, however, that the film’s laughs are lighthearted. Mixing archival and new footage, suicide and fratricide, history and parable, the director has made the darkest of burlesques. Though other filmmakers have approached Yugoslavia’s collapse with admirable skill and impeccable intentions, Kusturica’s brutal ridiculousness seems the most apt response.
This year’s three films adapted from novels by Henry James have something interesting (if not too surprising) in common: They all like their heroines more than James did. Beyond that, however, the three are quite different. The limits are set by Jane Campion’s The Portrait of the Lady, which archly treats its story as an expressionist nightmare, and Agnieszka Holland’s Washington Square, which primly makes a prison of its limited locations. Iain Softley’s new The Wings of the Dove takes a middle course, representing a modernity that’s safely rooted in the past.
Like the other James movies, The Wings of the Dove revolves around an American heiress. Its heroine, however, is a British woman from an impoverished background, Kate Croy (Helena Bonham Carter). Kate has just been taken under the wing of her wealthy aunt Maude (Charlotte Rampling), who promises the young woman a comfortable life in respectable society. In exchange, Kate must see only the people Maude wants her to see, which means cutting all contact with her opium-addicted father (Michael Gambon) and her lover, idealistic working-class journalist Merton Densher (Priest’s Linus Roache).
Then a possible solution to this quandary arrives in Maude’s social circle, in the person of American heiress Millie Theale (The Spitfire Grill’s Alison Elliott). Millie’s wealth makes her a very suitable mate for London aristocrats whose fortune hasn’t kept pace with their eminence. Kate soon learns what the most manipulative of the American’s potential suitors has discovered: that Millie is suffering from a fatal disease, which means her inheritance will soon be the only trace of her existence. This knowledge inevitably tempers Kate’s genuine affection for Millie.
Accompanied by Millie’s companion Susan (Elizabeth McGovern), the two women head for Venice. There, in a city known for intrigue, Kate decides to get Millie to fall in love with Merton, thus turning her destitute lover into a potential heir. To further this plan, Kate summons Merton to Venice, and then returns to London, leaving Millie and Merton alone as the former’s health declines. Even if Kate’s plan succeeds, however, her happiness is not assured.
The Wings of the Dove was published in 1902, but Softley and scripter Hossein Amini (who also wrote Jude) have pushed the action a few years forward. The effect is to shake up James’ Victorian world dramatically. Softley’s Kate is willful and modern, the sort of woman who can embarrass her male companions by looking at pornographic drawings in a section of a bookstore that’s supposed to be off-limits to ladies. The film is sexually franka quality not often associated with Jamesand features Bonham Carter’s first nude sex scene.
The costumes and locations are lush and faintly Eastern, expressing the British taste for the exotic without making Venice look as threateningly foreign as it does in, say, Paul Schrader’s The Comfort of Strangers. Softley undercuts the costume-drama opulence, however, with a quick pace, short scenes, and frequent cuts. This is surely the most propulsive presentation of a James novel ever, complete with almost frenzied scenes in a bustling fish market and at an outdoor costume ball. If that’s not entirely fair to the novelist’s famously overstuffed sentences, it does seem true to the impatience of Kate. The Wings of the Dove captures the spirit of a modern woman anxious to escape the still-powerful grasp of the fading Victorian era.
As the camera pans across what could be locations scouted for John Cougar Mellencamp’s “Pink Houses” video, a weary voice on the soundtrack discusses the story of Abraham and Isaac. This is the Bible Belted introduction to first-time writer/director Tim Blake Nelson’s Eye of God, and it accurately sets the tone: pretentious yet plain-spoken, manipulative yet inevitable. This bleak small-town drama is no more than the sum of its partsor, to be precise, of the way those parts have been deftly fragmented and reassembled.
The setting is Kingfisher, Okla., an oil town whose days (and residents) are dwindling. The action begins when local cops discover 14-year-old Tommy Spencer (Nick Stahl), dazed and covered in blood, walking along a highway. He’s taken to Sheriff Rogers (Hal Holbrook), who’s the narrator and the man who’ll try to put back together the story that Nelson has taken apart.
The other principal players are Ainsley DuPree (Martha Plimpton), a lonely young woman who works at a local burger drive-through, and Jack Stillings (Kevin Anderson), an ex-con who has become Ainsley’s pen pal. Jack has found Jesus while behind bars and arrives in Kingfisher fresh from prison to ask Ainsley to marry him. Their union is briefly idyllic, but Jack’s religious fervor has an ominous edge to it. As her husband becomes more dominating, Ainsley finds herself feeling as trapped by marriage as she was by solitariness. Her growing discomfort only supports the foreboding of Jack’s parole officer (Richard Jenkins), who senses that the ex-con still means trouble. (Ainsley’s inability to see the future clearly is too cleverly symbolized by her glass eye; unlike some figures of myth, she didn’t gain foresight from losing an eye.)
It doesn’t take long to figure out most of what’s going to happen to these characters, but Nelson effectively interweaves (and sometimes sonically overlaps) past and present. The skein of flashbacksand the performances of Plimpton, Anderson, and Holbrookmake something distinctive of an otherwise commonplace inventory of American-gothic rage and despair. Eye of God’s essential precursors are the films of Alain Resnais, which fragment narrative as a comment on the unreliability of memory and history. Nelson’s film has a tidier agenda, ultimately assembling its shards of story into a whole so unequivocal it might as well be predestined. But then, ambiguity and an Old Testament-rooted sense of fate don’t mix.CP