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  • TBC
  • Drama
  • 1985
  • 129 mins

When Father Was Away on Business

When Father Was Away on Business

Synopsis

Emir Kusturica's Palme d'Or-winning second feature shows a turbulent period in Yugoslavia's history through a young boy's eyes

About

Made shortly after Tito's death in 1980, Emir Kusturica's second feature uses family drama and a young boy's painful coming of age to reflect the confusion and division that accompanied the leader's rise to power and radical departure from Stalinism in post-war Yugoslavia.

In the early 1950s, six-year-old Malik (De Bartolli) is sufficiently preoccupied with football, his upcoming circumcision, and his first encounters with love and death not to notice that his father, Mesa (Manojlovic), rather than being "away on business", is in fact at a labour camp for unreformed Stalinists. But during a paranoid period of transition when a casual comment, or even humming the wrong tune, can get you arrested, not even Mesa's wife Sena (Keranovic) knows the true reason for his detention - a reason that has far less to do with his political views than with his vindictive lover Ankica (Furlan) who happens to have the ear (and heart) of Mesa's Party loyalist brother-in-law Zijo (Nadarevic).

Mesa's eventual political rehabilitation, under the close supervision of Party official Ostoja Cekic (Aligrudic) who shares his proclivity for carousing and womanising, seems an absurdly arbitrary process - but his return to family life is an altogether more complicated affair where Mesa continues to be his own worst enemy.

If Kusturica's feature debut Do You Remember Dolly Bell? (1981) had already earned the director some international recognition, When Father Was Away On Business won the coveted Palme d'Or at Cannes and also received an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Film, so inducting Kusturica into the pantheon of European filmmakers.

Like his later masterpiece Underground (1995), When Father Was Away on Business presents major movements in 20th century Yugoslavian history through the medium of family saga, but it does not resort to the brand of frenzied magical realism that marks all Kusturica's subsequent films (from 1988's Time Of The Gypsies on), instead relying on a child's uncomprehending perspective to bring its potentially grim material into a more wide-eyed focus.

During his father's absence, young Malik begins walking in his sleep through dangerous places (over high bridges, alongside cliff-edges). Viewers unfamiliar with the chaos that accompanied the emergence of Titoism may well feel themselves, like Malik, drifting through parts of this film without being able to fathom all its political nuances. This, however, hardly matters, given that a general sense of bewilderment characterises not just Malik, but almost everyone in the film, as they struggle to survive a time of rapidly shifting ideologies and random terror. Accordingly, Malik's somnambulism becomes one of the film's central metaphors for an entire society stumbling through surrounding perils that it can barely perceive, let alone understand.

Kusturica ends his film on a note of tragicomedy, where marriage, reconciliation and birth are conjoined with illness, sorrow, revenge and suicide. For in this bittersweet merging of the personal with the political, and the family with the state, nothing is really resolved, but still life must (and does) go on, and as the previous generation goes into retirement, the next one continues to dream.

Cast & Connections

  • Actor: Davor Dujmovic, Moreno D E Bartolli, Mira Furlan, Miki Manojlovic, Mustafa Nadarevic, Mirjana Karanovic
  • Director: Emir Kusturica
  • Screen Writer: Abdulah Sidran
  • Producer: Mirza Pasic
  • Photographer: Vilko Filac

In a nutshell

A beautifully observed, impeccably performed piece of Chekhovian drama in which a boy, his family and society all sleepwalk through the nightmare of Yugoslavia's Titoist reformation.

by Anton Bitel

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