Judge Joe Armenio thinks that's a rhetorical question.
"Every day in every way, I'm getting a little better."—Dino
Do You Remember Dolly Bell? (1981) is one of two early films by the Bosnian director Emir Kusturica that have recently been released on DVD by Koch Vision. The other is When Father Was Away On Business (1985), already reviewed on this site by your humble correspondent. In that review I compared Kusturica's film to Federico Fellini's Amarcord, and the similarities here are even stronger. Dolly Bell, like the Fellini film, is a coming-of-age story, dealing with Dino (Slavko Stimac), a teenager growing up in the early 1960s in Communist Yugoslavia. We have here all the standard themes of the genre: the occasionally troubled (but in this case, loving) relationship with parents, the appeal of popular culture, the brushes with pretty crime, the search for identity through ideas, and the scary allure of sex.
Like in When Father Was Away, the father (Maho, played by Slobodan Aligrudic) is a complex, flawed, and ultimately sympathetic figure. Maho has a tendency towards profligacy (he drinks and smokes too much) and is something of a Communist ideologue, speaking in Marxian aphorisms and drunkenly presiding over farcical "family meetings" at which his youngest son is instructed to take minutes. When he's diagnosed with cancer, he seems to take a bureaucratic pleasure in drawing up his will and dividing his possessions. For all of this, Maho is a caring and affectionate father; his Communism stems not from a rigidity or a desire to oppress but from a deep-seated longing for utopia in the face of life's inadequacy.
Dino also has utopian yearnings, which he expresses in his study of hypnosis and "auto-suggestion" (he often repeats the above-quoted mantra to himself). Like Maho's fanciful Communism, Dino's hobby is played for laughs, as he and his friends hypnotize rabbits and use their skills in attempted seductions. But Kusturica also takes this tendency toward self-improvement seriously, seeing it as another utopian alternative, a necessary delusion, a way of maintaining sanity and carving out identity. This longing for an alternative to everyday consciousness is also a theme in When Father Was Away, in which Malik's sleepwalking is a persistent theme. Early in the film Dino and his father have a good-natured debate, in which Maho dismisses hypnotism and auto-suggestion as distractions from the need to create a truly Communist society. Dino counters by saying that his methods are just another, internal road to utopia: "Everyone needs to create Communism in himself," he says. At the end of the film, as Maho lies dying, Dino reads to him about some crackpot scheme to make the world over, which brings a gleam of light to his father's eyes; "your auto-suggestion is good," he says, realizing on the brink of death that one need take consolation wherever he can. If all of this sounds somber, it's really not; Kusturica uses a light and deft touch here that tends toward the sentimental and nostalgic (again, like Amarcord).
The film also deals, as such films often do, with Dino's sexuality, focusing on a mysterious, alluring, and more experienced woman, the troubled cabaret performer Dolly Bell. It turns out that Dolly is also a prostitute, mistreated by her pimp, Sonny, who pays Dino to hide Dolly in his family's shed for unknown reasons. The sequences in which Dino and Dolly get to know each other are perhaps most notable as an example of the way that Kusturica tends to fill the frame with information, as the young couple's conversations are punctuated by the cooing and swooping of the many pigeons that dominate the shed. Kusturica also loves to film family gatherings, at which musical performances can jostle with conversations as kids play and roughhouse in the background. This gives his frames a sort of pleasing crowdedness, a sense of vitality in which the viewer has a choice of things to see and hear. In any event, Dino's dalliance with Dolly ends rather tritely when he tracks her down at the cabaret at which she's performing, consummates their relationship, and then defends her against Dino's petty tyranny. This element of the plot is a bit more conventional and strained than the sections which deal with Dino's relationship with his family; despite the focus on Dino, Maho is the heart of the film, its most interesting character and the one who gives the film a resonance deeper than the average coming-of-age tale. The movie seems quite a bit less interesting when he's not on screen.
Koch Vision's DVD transfer is adequate; the film occasionally looks a bit grainy and dull, but there are less obvious print defects than on When Father Was Away. The only extra of note is a 22-minute section from the same interview also excerpted on the DVD of When Father Was Away. Koch Vision provides no context for this interview, which is amateurishly filmed (and often difficult to hear) in what appears to be a half-finished house, and Kusturica often seems tired or peeved. At the end he simply stops in the middle of an answer and storms away in an unexplained huff. The whole thing is pretty weird, but strangely compelling. Kusturica tends to ramble in his answers, but when he focuses on Dolly Bell he can be enlightening, as when he says that his focus was to avoid an obvious anti-Communist tract, to go for "irony" rather than "declarations." He says that he has always been influenced by the films of classic Hollywood, which he admires for being "idealistic" and "larger than life," but laments the decline of the American cinema, which he sees as "empty and helplessly stupid." His observations aren't unique or even especially coherent, but they do provide an interesting background for the work; I'm glad that the interview is here, even if it would be nice to know what exactly is going on.
I find Dolly Bell a more satisfying film than When Father Was Away because it's tighter and more coherent, but it's also less ambitious, dealing with familiar themes and ideas in its treatment of Dino. There's also something a bit structurally off about a coming-of-age film in which the adolescent protagonist and his girlfriend are less interesting than his father. Both films are interesting glimpses at Kusturica's emerging style, his tendency toward vigorous, crowded canvases and darkly humorous looks at the ways in which the personal and political are intertwined.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Koch Vision
• Interview with Director Emir Kusturica
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