The following is one of the entries from my 100 Greatest Films from the Soviet Union, Russia, Ukraine and Eastern Europe list, which I invite you to visit on this site if you haven’t already done so. — Dennis
Belgrade, 1941. Ivan, the young, simple zookeeper, tends to his animals. Luftwaffe bombs litter the ground with dead and wounded creatures. The animals, along with everyone else, are frantic. Ivan closes the eyes of a ripped-open chimpanzee and rescues Soni, another chimpanzee. (Soni will later blow up a wedding with heavy artillery, frightening himself, causing him to flee, causing Ivan to search for him for fifty years!) It is the German invasion; and, for animal lovers at least, Emir Kusturíca, following Dušan Kovačević’s story, has found a fresh, heartrending way to portray war’s horror.
Bila jednom jedna zemlja—Serbo-Croatian for Once Upon a Time There Was a Country—covers regional history over more than five decades: Yugoslavia, to which Tito’s iron-handed communism brought stability following the war; the dissolution of that federation, unleashing ethnic and religious conflicts; the Bosnian War.
In the main, Kusturíca’s sprawling, boisterous, rambunctious, intermittently surreal tragicomedy follows two black marketeers and romantic rivals, who begin by selling the arms they produce to the communists, but whose motive is profit, not politics. One is somewhat more humane than the other; but the participation of many other characters besides, some of them idiots, form a portrait of chaos, tumultuousness, and moral rudderlessness. It’s the insane twentieth century, a world of contentiousness and cinema (there is a film-within-the-film about the two men, and a collision between the films that results in murder), one punctuated by celebratory get-togethers, continuing on into heaven.
Some note a Serbian bias in Kusturíca’s view of history. He has explained: “My father was an atheist, and he always described himself as a Serb. . . . we were Muslim for 250 years, but we were Orthodox before that, and deep down we were always Serbs. Religion cannot change that. We . . . became Muslims [only] to survive the Turks.”
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