WHEN FATHER WAS AWAY ON BUSINESS (Emir Kusturíca, 1985)

The Informbiro period in Yugoslavia began with the rupture between Tito, the nation’s dictator, and Stalin in 1948. It was a politically slippery, dangerous time. In 1950 a sarcastic remark that Mesa Zolj makes to his mistress about a published political cartoon reaches the attention of Zijo, a Party official, who is both the woman’s lover and Mesa’s wife’s brother. Without trial, without even being informed of the charge against him, Mesa must leave family behind in Sarajevo and serve undisclosed time in a work-prison camp in Zvornik. Sena, Mesa’s wife, tells their two young sons that their father is away on business.
     Warm, funny, deeply moving, Emir Kusturíca’s Otac na sluzbenom putu is rich in family feeling, including the pain of estrangement between Sena and Zijo. Sometimes six-year-old Malik is at the center of the narrative; in his father’s absence Malik starts to sleepwalk, requiring a bell to be tied to a string that’s tied to his toe. (The film abounds with historical metaphors.) However, the film isn’t limited to the perspective of children. It also encompasses the turbulent emotions of grownups, although they also are often in a fog of ignorance, if not quite innocence, as to what is happening.
     Eventually Mesa’s family is permitted to join him in Zvornik. Eventually Mesa is released. Before the family returns to Sarajevo, Malik’s girlfriend, the daughter of a Russian Jewish exile, is sent to hospital, where she dies: a medical parallel to the political disappearances that Malik’s father exemplifies. Life goes on, and sometimes it doesn’t, as indeed would be the case in a free country; but in one not free, like Yugoslavia, everything seems colored by the dark trance in which everyone’s waking hours are embedded.
     The performances are superb.

B(U)Y THE BOOK

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