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Vision improbable

UNDERGROUND: Emir Kusturica (15); Serbian film-maker Emir Kusturica's elephantine comedy lays claim to the high ground of European art cinema. By Adam Mars-Jones
The most successful section of Lelouch's recent version of Les Miserables told the story of a French couple sheltering a Jew in the Second World War, who gradually turn into his captors, pretending to him that the Reich is taking over the world long after it has in fact collapsed. Emir Kusturica's Underground, which won the Palme D'Or at Cannes last year, takes the same situation and greatly extends it. In Underground a whole community lives in a vast cellar, making arms for the benefit of a comrade who manipulates them all from the surface.

It's less surprising that the Cannes jury should have chosen a film about former Yugoslavia than that they should have picked a comedy. The tone of the first hour of the film, before the cellar becomes a subterranean village, is boisterous and even broad. As Germany bombs Belgrade, people pretty much go on doing what they're doing. Marko (Miki Manojlovic) goes on having sex with his wife, though his idea of love-making seems to involve smoking a cigarette and sarcastically mimicking her cries of excitement. Meanwhile Blacky (Lazar Ristovski) goes on eating, until bits of the roof come in and an elephant that has escaped from the zoo steals his shoes from the windowsill where they've been left (Blacky lives on the first floor). His wife Vera, heavily pregnant, also goes on with what she does, which is being jealous. As Blacky prepares to leave the building, she says, "You're going to see that actress, aren't you?" She even turns out to be right.

Kusturica's flair for striking and absurdist imagery is in evidence from the start, but his allegorical intentions can be confusing. In the ruins of the zoo, a tiger eats a goose, and an international audience, avid for political relevance, is likely to ask: is that your metaphor for civil war? In fact, the innocence of the goose seems to be represented in the story by Marko's simple-minded brother Ivan (Slavko Stimac), who tries to look after the escaped animals, and ends up taking a chimpanzee down into the cellar. As the only representative of nature in the underground world, the chimp is sometimes a distracting presence. Every simian fidget seems meaningful, though it's hard to be sure that the director, when he shows us the animal slowly licking its fingers during a speech, implies any particular commentary.

Marko and Blacky are essentially thieves, who target Germans and collaborators and give arms to partisans, but who would be brigands under any regime. Blacky seems to be invulnerable, which makes him both heroic and less than heroic. We see him tortured by the Nazis, blown up by a grenade whose pin he has pulled by mistake while hiding in a suitcase, but there's no harm done, and no darkening of the film's tone. Sometimes Blacky takes a lofty political line, accusing the actress he loves of putting on shows for German bastards when she could be helping injured partisans, but when he shoots a Nazi commandant at the theatre it's only really because he's jealous. Natalija (Mirjana Jokovic), who is supposedly Yugoslavia's greatest actress, is presented as an exhibitionist bimbo only too happy to sleep with the enemy - a rather grating character to be the female lead of a three-hour film.

Marko is also in love with Natalija, and when he decides to keep the people in the cellar as a private workforce she is the only other person who knows the secret and who can move between the two worlds. She's a sort of degraded Persephone, shared by Marko above ground and Blacky below, but without any deepening of her character. At this point the film, which has inhabited the uneasy tragicomic territory of Lubitsch's To Be or Not To Be, shows traces, too, of Zelig (doctored archive footage showing Marko as Tito's right-hand man) and also Delicatessen, with which film Underground shares a production designer. Above ground Marko and Natalija wear fancy clothes and dance the twist, below ground everyone eats dog food while listening to "Lilli Marlene" and simulated air-raid sirens.

The image of the village in the cellar is certainly striking, but it's somehow both too allegorical and not allegorical enough. It certainly doesn't mix with the more conventional satire on Tito's regime, in which a ludicrous film is being made of Marko's highly unreliable memoirs, entitled Spring Is Coming on a White Horse. Near the end of the film, after Ivan has come up from the cellar into a world he doesn't understand, the psychiatrist in charge of his case says helpfully, "Communism was one big cellar," but he doesn't seem all that convinced by what he is saying.

Kusturica the generator of images certainly outranks Kusturica the organiser of material (he wrote the screenplay in collaboration with Dusan Kovacevic). He overreaches himself with one setpiece sequence in particular, the underground wedding of Blacky's son Jovan and a girl who has likewise never seen the world above them. The version of Underground being released here is half an hour shorter than the one honoured at Cannes, but either this section has been rendered incoherent by cuts or it could shed another five minutes without further loss.

In the wake of the wedding, the chimp breaches the cellar walls by climbing inside the village's home-made tank and firing a shell, the bridegroom and his father go missing, and the bride drowns herself in an underground well. These events lead to the passages of Underground where the distraction of comedy drops away, and Kusturica's lyricism comes out to play. Jovan, seeing the moon for the first time, mistakes it for the sun. Misidentifying a stag as a horse, he grumbles to Blacky that his drawings of horses always looked like that. Then the sun slowly comes up over the Danube, and there's no mistaking it.

The film skips over the period between Tito's death and 1992, and the sequences set in the Bosnian conflict don't add anything much to the story. Admittedly Kusturica does produce some more visual astonishments in this setting, most noticeably a shot of a burning wheelchair with two bodies on it, the motor bizarrely still functioning, circling round a stone cross with an inverted Christ hanging off it.

Underground is no masterpiece. It's too wilful and ramshackle, and lacks any feeling for people. But there are times when Kusturica seems to be laying a claim to the throne of European art cinema, vacant since the death of Tarkovsky. In particular, the last sequence of Underground comes close to the extraordinary mood at the end of Solaris, with a restoration of losses which is also the birth of a new world, both an apocalyptic event and something very everyday - and all to the strains of Goran Bregovic's captivating gypsy wedding music.

n On release from Friday