DO YOU REMEMBER DOLLY BELL? (Emir Kusturíca, 1981)

Although it lacks his later magic realism, Emir Kusturíca’s Do You Remember Dolly Bell? (Sjecas li se, Dolly Bell), in Serbo-Croatian, is a deeply satisfying, heartaching film about a Sarajevo family in the early 1960s, during the time of Marshal Tito’s Communist Yugoslavia. It is especially about sixteen-year-old Dino (Slavko Stimac, sweet, charming, perfect), the Zolje family’s second-oldest of four children, whose coming of age involves a blonde-wigged stripper and prostitute who goes by the name of Dolly Bell. Kusturíca, a Bosnian Muslim like the Zoljes, has said that the film is partly autobiographical.

The family head is Maho, a head waiter who bears indignities well. While waiting for decent state housing that never materializes, Maho and his family live in a one-room apartment dominated by the kitchen table. Maho, wife and daughter sleep in one bed; the three boys, including Dino, in the other. Maho loses his temper a bit when his eldest son disciplines Dino for smoking a cigarette; “No one does any belting here but me!” Maho isn’t really harsh or strict; he is gruff. He is a true Communist believer who keeps waiting for true Communism to kick in and transform all their lives. In the meantime, he religiously peppers his conversations with Communist catch phrases, but these utterances are more reflexive than reflective; what does Maho believe? He chides Dino for pursuing hypnosis, but, when stricken with lung cancer and dying, he tells his son that hypnosis is good. One has to negotiate drab Yugoslav life any way one can. Dino helps roll over his father for an injection from his nurse. At that moment Maho’s face reflects a lifetime of disappointment, humiliation and forbearance. I am adjudging Slobodan Aligrudic 1981’s best supporting actor for his bone-deep, ultimately heartbreaking performance as Maho Zolje.

Perhaps my favorite moment in the film is the one in which father and son share a smoke together. Dino, like his brothers, is forbidden to smoke, but you know kids. Maho certainly knows his kids. He is on the threshold of dying and Dino, his favorite, I think, is on the threshold of being an adult. The two are seated alone together and Maho is smoking a cigarette. He invites Dino to smoke a cigarette, too. “I don’t smoke,” Dino remarks, not out of fear of punishment, but in a gallant gesture of filial respect about as touching as anything I’ve seen in any film. But Maho exceeds his son in gallantry: “I know,” he says, giving his son a cigarette and lighting it with his own. Well practiced in the craft of smoking, Dino doesn’t cough; he and the man he dearly loves, who is slipping out of his young life, share a piece of eternity together that may calm prodigious misfortunes ahead.

But Kusturíca’s film is essentially a comedy—a comedy elastic enough to incorporate life’s tragedies. “Every day, in every way, I’m getting better”: this is the self-hypnotic mantra that Dino and one of his friends ritualistically repeat aloud in unison to counteract life’s bleakness for youth in Sarajevo. Dino may be having better luck applying hypnosis to himself than when he tries it out on his pet rabbit, who will have none of it. Here is a boy who wants to believe in something; just maybe he can believe in himself. Earlier, his father set the path, humorously catching himself in extolling “private, er, I mean, public initiative.” Dino does not want to have to catch himself—to monitor himself. He just wants to be able to be. Listening to Western rock ’n’ roll and, better yet, playing in a rock-’n’-roll band at the community culture club permit him to be himself. Dino isn’t a rebel with or without a cause; he is a kid wanting to be a kid—not, like his father, an old and ailing man before his time. And being a sixteen-year-old kid means he wants to prove himself to himself as well. That’s where Dolly Bell comes in.

Dolly is named after a stripper in a movie that Dino saw at the club. Sonny is a pimp. Like the young Kusturíca, Dino somehow gets involved with petty criminal elements, and Sonny ends up paying him to keep Dolly hidden in the upper level of the Zolje family shed. Amidst the flutter of pigeons, Dino and Dolly become friends. Testing the value of his property, Sonny arranges for a flock of horny boys, including Dino, to mount the ladder to the upper loft, one by one, to have sex with Dolly. Dino wants her most of all but, in one of his acts of gallantry, only pretends to be having sex with her, sparing her at least one leg of what is an orderly gang rape. Tactfully, Kusturíca keeps his camera below; and, as boy after boy proceeds to nirvana, Dino’s face registers utter helplessness at being unable to counter Dolly’s predicament. Waves of dust stream down through the upper planks as boys “have” Dolly and Dino listens and watches below. The sheer loveliness of the sight is ironic counterpoint to the horror of the event. On another occasion Dino really does have sex with Dolly because they both want to make love with one another, and again Kusturíca keeps his camera discreet. What Kusturíca shows is what follows: Dino standing up to Sonny when the latter begins beating Dolly. Dino takes the beating; and Kusturíca’s showing it suggests that this, not Dino’s loss of virginity, is what he considers to be Dino’s passage from boyhood to manhood. But this “passage” must remain incomplete unless Dino knows what we know, that this gallant gesture of his has only interrupted the cruelty to which Dolly is fated to endure at Sonny’s hands. Later, wearing the bruises of the altercation, he lies to his family, bragging he got the better of Sonny. His overcompensation for at least partial defeat suggests, to me, he is privately coping with the truth.

A more decisive passage is Maho’s death. Once he has passed from life, his eldest sons, following Islamic custom, carefully set his body down on the floor. “He was a Communist!” barks a family friend, who has brought over the bicycle that Maho has arranged for his youngest son to have as a father’s meager, infinitely loving legacy. The tonal complexity of the scene is remarkable, especially when his sons undo the ritualistic gesture and restore their father’s corpse to the bed. Kusturíca seems to be taking a satirical swipe in both directions, at Communism and Islam, deftly, humorously. How can that be? It helps to know something about Kusturíca’s background. Kusturíca’s ancestry is Serbian, that is to say, Orthodox Christian. After the Ottoman invasion in the fifteenth century, these ancestors had Islam impressed upon them, much as, centuries later, Communism was politically impressed upon them. Closest to the camera in both the action and its mirror-image reverse, moving his father’s body from bed to floor and, then, from floor back to bed, Dino is the key figure in these shots, and indeed Dino, if you will, Kusturíca’s surrogate, is the film’s central vehicle for the idea of untangling one’s life from all the outside forces that have been imposed upon it—forces that, over time, become part of the foundation of one’s life, whether one likes this circumstance or not.

Kusturíca, who was all of a decade older than Dino when he made the film (his first feature, after a number of shorts), has stated that he aimed at steering its material away from politics in order to focus on human elements involving family and community. But politics nonetheless asserts itself everywhere, if only as an invisible force permeating Kusturíca’s unaffected, muted, mostly naturalistic shots. (Hardly the later Kusturíca style, is it?!) Indeed, Sonny’s pimping of Dolly Bell, which in some other context might seem a capitalistic intrusion, functions here, primarily, as a metaphor for all kinds of modern slavery that undermine an individual’s right to self-determination. I know what Kusturíca has said; I watched him say it in an interview excerpted on my DVD of Do You Remember Dolly Bell? But, for me, everything in the film returns to politics.

The final two shots are at least as existential as they are political, though. In the penultimate shot, perhaps the most brilliant one in the film, Dino is among those in the back of the truck as the family, following Maho’s death, moves on. They have been reduced to the bare bones of existence, nearly everything having been necessarily sold. Where are they going? Let’s say the future. As it is jolted back and forth by the rockiness of the road, Dino’s face is devastating to take in. Dino has lost his father, several kinds of innocence, his rock-’n’-roll band, and his friends, including Dolly Bell. The final shot is a long-shot of Sarajevo. Did we not understand all along that Kusturíca’s film is a portrait of a city as well as the portrait of a boy, his family, his friends?

At Venice, Kusturíca won two prizes for his Dolly Bell: the international critics’ prize and the prize for best first film. He also won the critics’ prize at São Paulo.

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