When Father Was Away On Business Review
Emir Kusturica’s second feature film, following the impressive coming of age drama Do You Remember Dolly Bell?, sees the director remaining on familiar ground with another childhood perspective on the past, this time a six year-old child’s view on the troubling political period of Yugoslavia in 1950, when the Communist country was coming to terms with Tito’s break from Stalinism. The political events are however merely the backdrop for the adult human drama that plays out at the film’s core.
Living in Sarajevo, Malik’s primary interest is in football, following the progress of the national team and hoping one day to be able to buy a football of his own. He is used to his father, Mesa (Miki Manojlovic), being absent on account of his work which entails a couple of business trips a week. His father however is taking advantage of his trips to carry on an affair with a woman (Mira Furlan, who would later play Delenn in the TV series ‘Babylon 5’), the mistress of a high-ranking Party official who just happens to be Mesa’s brother-in-law. She is becoming increasingly frustrated that Mesa seems unlikely to ever carry out his promise to divorce his wife, so when he inadvertently makes an ill-judged remark about a political cartoon in the newspaper, the comment is relayed to his brother-in-law. The slip-up sees Mesa imprisoned and sent to work in a labour camp, but as far as six year-old Malik is concerned, his father is still away on business, like a few of the other fathers in the community.
Considering the subject matter, Kusturica’s film is rather more serious and certainly more sedately paced than his later films, yet the recognisable Kusturica concerns and themes are all present. Like Kieslowski’s early Polish films, once criticised for failing to address the political climate of the Communist regime, Kusturica’s interest is not concerned with making any political comment about the period, but in speaking of more universal concerns and human interests. By portraying it through the eyes of a child the director is just as effective as Kieslowski in finding a successful means of doing so. What comes through is Kusturica’s personal knowledge of the spirit and character of the people of the region – not their political beliefs or alliances, which as we see in the film, are temporary and can fluidly switch from one direction to the other.
At the same time however he manages to capture the essence of the harsh realities for people living through this time, without any of the mawkishness or sentimentality that similar childlike perspectives can often lend films about politically turbulent times. Instead, Kusturica characteristically captures the mystery and wonder of life, as well as its peculiarities and strangeness, through the eyes of Malik – superbly played by the young Moreno de Bartoli - who has started to sleepwalk and wander off into perilous locations. In such a context, the absurdities of the political alliances, the choice of one’s words and one’s bedfellows can have humorous as well as tragic consequences. Kusturica captures this marvellously and subtly in a number of ways, but mainly through the clever use of football metaphors, movie clips, TV and radio broadcasts, all playing out in the background to the lives of the family.
Despite the difference in tone here from his later films, what the director is still able to capture is the richness of life in its joys and in its tragedies and the indomitable spirit of the people to endure it, but also the human weakness that allows people to keep making the same mistakes. Kusturica shows this from a context that he is familiar with, in the people of the former Yugoslavia, but from a perspective that speaks universally to a much wider audience.
When Father Was Away On Business is released in the UK by Artificial Eye. The DVD is in PAL format and is Region 2 encoded.
The film is transferred at a ratio of about 1.69:1, but surprisingly the transfer is not anamorphic. The ratio, I’m reliably informed, should be 1.85:1, so even this is incorrect, resulting in the frame either being opened up or pan and scanned. The image is nonetheless clear, sharp and shows fine detail and textures. Colours are however a little dulled by a greenish tint. The contrast is high and the print is a little on the dark side, which at least allows for some solid strong blacks. There are a few marks and dustspots on the print and occasionally a few larger marks, but nothing that is in any way distracting. Edge enhancement is visible and some artefact problems show up in thin vertical lines. Overall, it wouldn’t be a bad transfer but for its non-anamorphic presentation and the questionable aspect ratio.
The audio track, presented in Dolby Digital 2.0, in not in any way exceptional, but isn’t particularly troublesome either. It can sound a little bit harsh and there’s a little bit of analogue hiss, but dialogue is fine and clear.
English subtitles are in a white font and are optional.
The principal extra feature here is an Interview with Emir Kusturica (18:08), where the director talks about how he communicates through his filmmaking technique. Specifically, in regard to the film presented here, his aim was to create a strong story out of a critical period in Yugoslavian history that anyone could relate to, and not just a film that would appeal to international film critics. The remainder of the features on the disc are a text-based Emir Kusturica Biography and three powerfully compelling trailers for the larger-than-life antics of Black Cat White Cat (1:36), Underground (1:05) and Life Is A Miracle (1:42).
Taken together with Kusturica’s first feature film, Do You Remember Dolly Bell?, When Father Was Away On Business presents a fascinating look at the volatile political background of the people of the former Yugoslavia, as well as offering an sympathetic insight into the character of the people of the region, and an intriguing reminiscence of undoubtedly autobiographical incidents that are repeated, elaborated and exaggerated in the director’s later films. Kusturica’s ability to make such an unfamiliar location, period and behaviour perfectly accessible and entertaining in this early atypically serious film is brilliantly achieved, not only winning the film the Palme d’Or at Cannes, but obtaining an Academy Award nomination for Best Foreign Film. It’s marvellous that Artificial Eye have made both this and Do You Remember Dolly Bell? available on DVD in the UK, and while they are both just about acceptable presentations, the quality of the materials available for both films leaves something to be desired.
Last updated: 19/04/2018 04:41:58