Judge Joe Armenio is still wondering why a member of the Jackson Five was president of Communist Yugoslavia.
"Who loves anybody in this madhouse?"—Mesa (Miki Manojlovic)
Bosnian director Emir Kusturica, best known for sprawling, ambitious, surreal films such as Time of the Gypsies and Underground, gained his first major international success in 1985 with When Father Was Away On Business, which won the Palme D'Or (Best Film) at Cannes. The film is a novelistic take on the precariousness of life in early 1950s Communist Yugoslavia, focusing on the life of a family whose patriarch is sent to a labor camp for alleged political crimes. The story is told largely through the eyes of six-year-old Malik (Moreno D'E Bartolli, in a really charming performance), who's been told that his father has simply taken a business trip.
Facts of the Case
In 1948, Yugoslavian leader Josip Broz Tito broke with the USSR and Joseph Stalin, forcing rather confusing changes in the party line, as loyal Communists who once celebrated Stalin were now forced to despise him. Mesa (Miki Manojlovic) is married with two children, but is more interested in philandering than politics; this doesn't stop him from being arrested when a spurned lover, Ankica (Mira Furlan), informs Mesa's brother-in-law, a party bureaucrat, about a critical remark he made concerning a party-approved political cartoon. (The brother-in-law also has designs on Ankica; the arrest is as much about family politics and sexual jealousy as Marxist doctrine.) With father away "on business," Mesa's wife Sena (Mirjana Karanovic), a seamstress, and their children attempt to make do, eventually being reunited with him once he completes his labor and is sent to a remote settlement for "resocialization."
When Father Is Away on Business is less overtly surreal than Kusturica's later films. As the director says in the interview included on the DVD, it is "in the tradition of realistic cinema." However, we're not dealing here with a simply told realistic drama; the story is told largely from the point of view of Malik, whose rather fractured view of events (he's six years old) is intended to accentuate the absurdity of the political climate in which these people live. This is an interesting device, but I don't think it works especially well. Ideally for a film like this, the humor, absurdity, and pathos should mesh into a seamless whole, but When Father Was Away often seems like two movies awkwardly spliced together: a somber political drama and a wistful study of a young boy's take on events that are both too serious and too ridiculous for him to understand.
Although Kusturica doesn't mention Fellini as a specific influence in the interview, I couldn't help thinking of the Italian director's Amarcord (1973), a film that treats totalitarianism with a similar mix of sadness and almost nostalgic wistfulness for the carnivalesque absurd (Zoran Zimjanovic's folksy music in When Father Was Away, which sounds a lot like Nino Rota's work for Fellini, drives home the comparison). Whatever other flaws Amarcord has, it is always a coherent statement, maintaining its focus from scene to scene, but Kusturica's film often seems to be flailing around in search of a tone (the director would surely say this is intentional, but it made both halves of the film partly unsatisfying for me).
When Father Is Away is a novelistic film, in that it deals with a fairly large cast of characters and a number of intersecting plotlines. The most interesting figure is Mesa, who genuinely loves his long-suffering wife and children but is an incurably impulsive lush and womanizer. He causes his family great hardship but remains essentially lovable. In one sequence, Sena discovers yet another instance of Mesa's "whoring," which leads to a fierce physical fight. In the next scene, we see parents and children together, lounging somewhat exhaustedly but clowning and joking with obvious affection. The sequence captures well the mix of love and frustration that someone like Mesa inspires.
In brief and skillful sketches, Kusturica shows the smallness and ambition of the party bureaucrat, Zijo, and the cynical apathy of the older generation, represented by Sena's father. The sequences that focus on Malik illustrate the sort of communal pageantry that is intended to fuel nationalist feeling but for a child is simply larger-than-life fun. He goes to the movies, and to an airshow; he wants a soccer ball so that he can imitate the heroes he hears about on the radio. He develops a crush on a neighbor's daughter (the neighbor is a Russian doctor also in need of "resocialization") in an undernourished subplot that I could have done without. He also gives occasional voiceover narration that humorously captures his imperfect take on the events involving his family.
In the end, Kusturica brings the entire family together at the marriage of Sena's brother; the climactic scenes here involving Mesa, Zijo, and Ankica have an undeniable power, but seem a bit too self-consciously designed to provide an emotional climax rather than making sense within the context of the story being told. The final scenes occur with a national soccer match on the radio in the background, just like in Fassbinder's The Marriage of Maria Braun. Like in the Fassbinder film, the presence of the radio broadcast is ironic, emphasizing a superficial patriotism and hiding the deeper national sickness that shapes the characters' lives. Kusturica's vision is less bleak than Fassbinder's, though, and the ending allows for some hope.
Koch Vision's presentation of the DVD is pretty subpar. The print of the film isn't in very good shape, with considerable specks and grain, especially at the beginning. The transfer is letterboxed, with a 1.33:1 aspect ratio. The only extra of note is an interview with Kusturica, conducted in English with poor sound. In it, he discusses his theories on presenting history in cinema, and the presence of recurring themes in his work.
When Father Was Away On Business is a worthwhile, intelligent film. It has plenty of flaws, but they are flaws that arise from passion and ambition rather than incompetence. Among other things, the film discusses a history most Americans will not know very much about, and does so with warmth and compassion. Watching a film made in Yugoslavia in the 1980s is a melancholy experience, knowing that the country would be wrecked by war within a few short years, although the movie's plot reminds us that things were never idyllic there. It also reminds us of the absurd and unpredictable ways in which political passions shift; although the main characters of When Father Was Away are Muslim (as is Kusturica), the political conflicts that drive the plot are matters of nationalism and doctrine, not race or ethnicity.
Koch Vision is guilty of somewhat shoddy DVD release, but it's nice to have Kusturica's early work available again.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Koch Vision
• Interview with Director Emir Kusterica
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