During the turbulent political climate of 1950 Sarajevo, as the nascent socialist federation of Yugoslavia under Marshall Josip Tito began to exert its independence from the Soviet Union, young Malik’s (Moreno de Bartolli) only pressing concern is to earn enough money with his best friend Joza in order to buy a genuine leather football and emulate the national athletes competing for the World Cup. To this end, Malik and Joza gather herbs for sale at a local herb shop on behalf of a carefree and affable drunkard janitor named Franjo (Predrag Lakovic) who, as the film begins, indolently sits under a tree and serenades a group of peasant women working in a nearby field with a Spanish ballad (whose distantly exotic musical origin, as Malik narrates off-camera, circumvents any unintentional double entendre that may be attached to the selection), as the boys join in the dramatic chorus. Meanwhile, Malik’s charismatic father, Mesa (Miki Manojlovic), onboard a train with his mistress, Ankika (Mira Furlan), returning home from one of his frequent business trips to Zagreb, expresses casual dismay for the excessive viewpoint expressed by a political cartoon in a newspaper, before becoming embroiled in a brief, but passionate argument over the direction of their illicit affair. It is a cursory comment that would soon come to haunt him as Ankika mentions the casual remark to Mesa’s brother-in-law, a party official named Zijo (Mustafa Nadarevic) who soon becomes her romantic suitor. Informed on by Zijo, Mesa arranges to turn himself him over to the authorities for the arrest – drolly, on the evening of Malik and his brother Mirza’s (Davor Dujmovic) circumcisions – euphemizing his absence to the inquisitive boy by claiming to be going on an extended business trip. However, when Mesa is reassigned to a work camp at a hydroelectric power plant in Zvornik, Malik’s devoted mother Sena (Mirjana Karanovic) is forced to make the difficult decision to uproot the family from Sarajevo in order to reunite with their father during his indefinite, mandated transitional period of ‘resocialization’.
Emir Kusturica creates a lyrical, humorous, poignant, and captivating tale of innocence, political turmoil, and forgiveness in When Father Was Away on Business. Using recurring episodes that depict absence of free will and self-determinism, Kusturica creates an understated, yet incisive examination of the overreaching political suppression and heavy-handed authoritarian control endemic in postwar Yuguslovia’s difficult and uncertain transition towards modernization and self-government: Mesa’s passing remark to his mistress that leads to his arrest, Malik’s involuntary bouts of somnambulism that is triggered after his father’s disappearance; Dr. Ljahaov’s (Aleksandar Dorcev) young daughter, Masa’s grave and incurable illness. Note the similar allusion of unconscious will in Dusan Makavejev’s Man is Not a Bird (which coincidentally, also features Eva Ras in a supporting role, as the hypnosis-obsessed, neglected housewife at a mining town) that serves as a reflection of the people’s resigned conformity to imposed state control that pervasively governs all aspects of their waking lives. In the enchanting and surreally transcendent final sequence, a sleepwalking Malik seemingly levitates above the woods of his idyllic hometown (an idiosyncratic image that Kusturica subsequently readapts for Time of the Gypsies) and awakens with an enigmatic smile – a wry metaphor for a nation emerging from a restless and unsettling dream, looking towards the hopeful and tenuously reunited frontier of its uncharted destination.
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