Sunday, 4 November 2012

when father was away on business (d emir kusturica, w abdulah sidran)

Kusturica's second film is not well known in the UK, although most people I've met here seem to have seen it. I'd never heard of it. The director's reputation might be on the wane, but there was a point at the end of the 20th century when he felt like the freshest, most important new voice in cinema. A trio of films, Black Cat, White Cat; Time of the Gypsies and Underground were feted for their irreverence and flair. When Father Was Away on Business was his second film, using many of the same actors who appear in the later films and is a bravura piece of work which stands up beside the director's more celebrated offerings.

The film belongs to a strong Eastern European satirical tradition (going back to Schweyk, Brecht etc). Tito's Communist rule is pervasive and one misplaced remark can lead to exile. This is what happens to Malik's father Mehmet after his lover denounces him to his brother-in-law. Mehmet "goes away on business" and later the family will follow him. The satire is gentle but affecting, most of all because it presents events through the eyes of the child, for whom football and girls are just as important as politics. 

However, above and beyond its politics, this is a great film in so far as it captures a complete social environment. As well as being a satire, it's also like a work of 19th C realism. Here is Communist Sarajevo captured with all of its energy, beauty and flaws. The film runs at 2 hours and 15 minutes, with an array of storylines and twists in the plot, but it never feels over-elaborated or rambling. The director's hand is firmly on the tiller, guiding the screenplay through its various episodes, whilst revelling in this world which has gone and will never return. The frequent use of significant football matches, usually against the Russians, provides a framework based in history, a history which must seem all the more distant now in Bosnia, when the nation participating in the football matches no longer exists. In addition, the affectionate relations shared across the religious divide seem remarkable given the imminence of what was to come at the time this small masterpiece was made.