One of Emir Kusturica’s best films, When Father Was Away on Business definitely precedes another one I’ve blogged about recently: Tito and Me.
A lot of Kusturica trademarks are here: frenzied party scenes where multiple side plots converge (the ending here is sort of a tamer version of that in Underground)-
-riotous, constant music; Serbian identity; lead males who personify both stereotypical machismo and also plenty of tangible weakness (here, as in a lot of his films, that weakness is for women (are Kusturica’s male leads just happily adulterous, or are they being critiqued as such…?)).
Kusturica was born in Bosnia but lives in Serbia – or maybe he lives in Drvengrad, the town he had built for his film Life is a Miracle (which I haven’t seen), which is now, as far as I can tell, a fully functioning town. That conflicting identity, along with a yearning for the former, united Yugoslavia, is certainly at the heart of any of his films.
Where Underground was controversial for possibly downplaying any villainous efforts from its Serbian characters, When Father Was Away on Business avoids most of that. It’s nostalgic and wide-eyed, mostly thanks to the perspective of Malik (Moreno D’E Bartolli)-
-the young protagonist who watches his father’s persecution at the hands of his Communist crony brother-in-law. Malik – like Zoran in Tito and Me – is only partially aware of the goings-on and in-fighting in the immediate aftermath of the Tito-Stalin split. So when his father, Mesa (the great Kusturica regular Predrag Manojlovic) is arrested after an unseemly reaction life seems only vaguely interrupted.
When Father Was Away on Business would make a great companion piece with The Joke, and I wonder how much Kusturica was influenced by the Czech New Wave. Both films are sardonically, grimly funny, cast a pejorative eye on Communism, and are comically paranoid about ones friends.
But there’s a gentleness in the film, too. There’s a Fellini-like love for the cinema-
-and plenty of anarchy that anticipates the out-and-out lunacy of Underground:
When Father Was Away on Business can be gentle-
-and oddly lucid:
It may well be Kusturica’s masterpiece, though Underground is so madcap and lucid that it provides tough competition.