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Related Notes: Disintegration in Frames: Aesthetics and Ideology in the Yugoslav and Post-Yugoslav Cinema by Pavle Levi.


Otac na sluzbenom putu: ljubavno istorijski film, 1985
[When Father Was Away on Business: A Historical Love Film]

de BartolliDuring 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.

© Acquarello 2003. All rights reserved.

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Dom za Vesanje, 1989
[Time of the Gypsies]

St. George's DayEmir Kusturica's Time of the Gypsies is a curious, visually hypnotic film: a lyrical glimpse into an exotic, obscure culture, a tragedy of lost innocence, a reaffirmation of love and family. At the center of the story is a young man named Perhan (Davor Dujmovic) who lives in a Gypsy ghetto with his grandmother (Ljubica Adzovic), uncle (Husnija Hasimovic), and his crippled sister Danira (Elvira Sali). Their means of income revolve around his grandmother's faith healing abilities and the occasional sale of limestone to the villagers. Perhan also possesses a divine power, telekinesis, a talent that has proven to have little application in his austere life. His one source of comfort is his beloved Azra (Sinolicka Trpkova), but his repeated marriage proposals are invariably rejected by her mother, who believes that his poverty makes him an unsuitable husband. One day, his grandmother saves the life of a little boy, the son of a charismatic criminal named Ahmed (Bora Todorovic). In gratitude, Ahmed agrees to take Danira to a hospital in Ljubljana during an upcoming 'business' trip to Italy with his brothers, and to pay for all her incurred medical expenses. Perhan decides to accompany the apprehensive Danira to the hospital, leaving his grandmother and Azra behind. Along the way, indications of Ahmed's illicit activities begin to surface, as children and young women, sold into servitude by their families (or sometimes, kidnapped), crowd into the van to join them on the trip. Unable to stay with Danira at the hospital, Perhan is forced to leave her behind and travels with Ahmed to Italy. Smuggled alongside Ahmed's syndicate "family", Perhan is seduced into a life of crime.

Kusturica creates an ethereal, supernatural atmosphere in Time of the Gypsies, reflecting the mysticism and nomadic existence of the Yugoslavian gypsies: the Roma. The mesmerizing tracking of the opening sequence seamlessly weaves from a beggar claiming mental illness, to Perhan's uncle praying to a non-denomination god while gambling on the streets, and sets the transient, transcendental tone of the film. The camerawork of the oven scene, as Perhan explains the limestone production process to Azra while loading firewood, is innovative: muffling his voice, as if teleported through the chimney, briefly reappearing at the top of the stack, then returning to the ground with the the final product. Levitation sequences further contribute an element of surreality to the film: the St. George's Day festivities, Perhan's pet turkey, his telekinetic powers, the birth of a child. The result is an eccentric fusion of comedy and tragedy, realism and fantasy; in essence, an inextinguishable celebration of life in the direst of circumstances. Time of the Gypsies is a privileged glimpse into the soul of a discarded race - of joy and mourning, of transgression and human decency - a compassionate portrait of marginalized people, not unlike ourselves.

© Acquarello 2000. All rights reserved.

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Bila jednom jedna zemlja, 1995
[Underground]

Jokovic/ManojlovicUnderground begins on a deceptively lyrical, unassuming note: "Once upon a time, there was a country." On the evening of April 6, 1941, two drunken profiteers, Marko (Miki Manojlovic) and Blacky (Lazar Ristovski) celebrate their latest caper - the theft of a government arms shipment - accompanied by a raucous, obliging gypsy band. However, their revelry is truncated on the following morning, as Belgrade is bombed by Allied troops, and the two opportunists are identified as Communist insurgents. Facing the uncertainty of war and possible arrest, Marko decides to seek refuge at his grandfather's cellar with his brother Ivan (Slavko Stimac), Blacky, and Blacky's pregnant wife, Vera (Mirjana Karanovic). Blacky's separation from his mistress, an actress named Natalija (Mirjana Jokovic), becomes unbearable, and after spending several years apart, devises a plan to kidnap her on-stage and kill her lover, a German officer named Franz (Ernst Stotzner). The plan goes awry when Natalija refuses to resume their relationship, and Blacky is captured and interrogated by the Germans. Marko surfaces through an elaborate series of underground passages and emerges at a hospital to successfully rescue Blacky, but a reckless mishap with a hand grenade leaves Blacky severely injured and confined in the cellar for an extended period of time in order to recuperate. Shut out of the outside world and solely reliant on Marko's reports of the war's progress, Blacky is oblivious to the profound changes sweeping Yugoslavia, as the Communists have become national heroes after defeating the Fascists. Marko exploits Blacky's informational dependence to fabricate stories of a protracted war in order to profit from the free labor offered by the underground workers. By 1961, Marko has married Natalija and reaped the benefits of his alliance with Marshall Tito by claiming a high-ranking post, while Blacky continues to manufacture armaments to help the war effort, unaware of his best friend's selfish duplicity and betrayal.

Emir Kusturica creates a frenetic, delirious, farcical, insightful, and ultimately tragic allegory on the dissolution of a nation in Underground. Using surreal, repeated events that interweave reality and illusion, Kusturica presents an incisive metaphor for the turbulent and often vicious circle of Yugoslavian politics: the repeated aerial assaults during World War II are later re-staged by Marko in order to continue deceiving the underground workers; wedding receptions continually feature the lively Gypsy band; military personnel shuttle paying refugees in a hidden tunnel through Yugoslavia; the haunting, parting image of Marko and Natalija in Bosnia. In the end, the prophetic words, "War is not a war unless a brother kills a brother", becomes a metaphor for the dissolution of a nation through ethnic conflict, an elegy for the fractured soul of a divided country.

© Acquarello 2001. All rights reserved.

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