When Father Made A Good Movie
When Father Was Away On Business Directed by Emir Kusturica Screenplay by Abdulah Sidran At the Janus through January 23
SEVEN-YEAR-OLD Malik rises slowly from his bed, his eyes half closed. With arms outstreched, as if holding a marionette, he walks down the hall, past the bathroom, and out the front door. In post-World War II Yugoslavia, sleepwalking was a very good way to escape from reality.
It is this reality that Emir Kusturica depicts brilliantly in When Father was Away on Business, winner of the best picture award at the 1985 Cannes Film Festival.
Able to walk the fine line between a bland documentary and an overdone "epic saga," Kusturica tells the story of a Sarajevo family's struggle during the consolidation of the Yugoslavian state under Tito. The story is told in part through the eyes of Malik, the son of an aspiring Communist Party officer. Malik's Father's "business trip" (as a forced laborer) begins when a political cartoon appears in the party newspaper. The cartoon shows Karl Marx writing at a desk, with a picture of Tito on the wall behind him. Father--known as Mesa in the film--mentions in passing to his mistress that the cartoon is somewhat extreme, a crime for which she later reports him.
IT'S easy for Mesa's mistress to have him sent to the labor camp, because the official to whom she reports him happens to have designs on her. He also happens to be Mesa's brother-in-law.
As the title would suggest, the film is not about the labor camp, but about what happens back home while father is away. The movie centers on the struggle of Mesa's wife and children, and on the conflict between the mistress, the brother-in-law, and the wife over the terms of his release.
Kusturica is prudent in his use of Malik as commentator, offering a refreshing break from films like Stephen Spielberg's, which are told almost completely through the eyes of children. The part of the objective observer is played by Malik's bespectacled older brother, Mirza, who concerns himself solely with the outcomes of events. His detached perspective suggests that of the filmmaker, a suggestion further enhanced by his fascination with cameras, and with what little cinema he can find in backward Sarajevo.
Much of the film is shot to allow great depth of field, keeping both the foreground and the background of the picture in focus. This technique--pioneered by Orson Welles in Citizen Kane--is known as "deep focus." The use of deep focus lends a strong sense of realism to the film, portraying simultaneously the characters and their environment. Kusturica also imports some techniques from the genre of film noir, especially the notion of the woman-as-temptress (in this case the mistress), and the practice of photographing her image in mirrors.
THE ENTIRE ensemble are very much at ease in their roles, so much so that one would be surprised to learn that they had ever left the Balkan countryside in their lives. In fact, all of the dialogue is in Serbo-Croatian. The only time the subtitles present a problem to the unattentive viewer is at the film's beginning, when it is difficult to discern which characters are central, and which characters are central, and which are only of brief importance. This problem is attributable to the script, however, and is a minor flaw in an otherwise excellent screenplay.
Sometimes, award-winning European films prove unappealing to a North-American audience. It often appears as if the judges at Cannes think that complexity and unusualness demonstrate great meaning and importance. When Father was Away on Business is clearly not a film of this genre. It is that rare film that can combine great meaning with simplicity and richness, without the stench of Hollywood commercialism.