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When Father Was Away on Business

Movie Information

In Brief: Emir Kusturica's Oscar-nominated When Father Was Away on Business (1985) is more than just a very good film. It's a look into a world and a country (Yugoslavia) that no longer exists. It also depicts a turbulent, and dangerous, period in Yugoslavia (the early 1950s) when Yugoslav president Tito had severed relations with Stalin. The story is rooted in the perils of the time — father isn't really away on business, he's in a labor camp because of his sympathies with communist party. Told mostly, though by no means completely, from the viewpoint of a young boy, the film is a fascinating and frequently moving look at life in Yugoslavia (specifically) Sarajevo at the time. Classic World Cinema by Courtyard Gallery will present When Father Was Away on Business Friday, May 23, at 8 p.m. at Phil Mechanic Studios, 109 Roberts St., River Arts District (upstairs in the Railroad Library).  Info: 273-3332, www.ashevillecourtyard.com.
Score:

Genre: Drama
Director: Emir Kusturica (Arizona Dream)
Starring: Moreno D'E Bartolli, Predrag Manojlovic, Mirajana Karanovic, Mustafa Nadarevic
Rated: R

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Emir Kusturica’s When Father Was Away on Business is probably the filmmaker-actor’s best known work — thanks to some degree to its reception at Cannes and its Best Foreign Language Film Oscar nomination. It is also a very odd film — starting with its title, which works on two levels. It primarily refers to the euphemism used to explain Father’s, Mesha (Miki Manojlovic), absence — he’s really in a labor camp — to his children, but it also relates to the film’s opening scene where Father really is away on business. It is on this trip that he makes an innocent — but mildly anti-Tito — remark to his mistress (Mira Furlan) — this remark is what will lead to his stint in the labor camp.

 

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When Kusturica made the film in 1985, it provided a look into the world of Yugoslavia in the early 1950s — shortly after President Tito (the “benevolent dictator”) had broken away from Stalin. It was a time of political unrest that proved dangerous to those who were hardline party members — like Mesha. It was, as the film observes, a time when “brother turned against brother,” but in this case it’s “brother-in-law turned against brother-in-law.” Here, Mesha’s brother-in-law — a bureaucrat in the Tito government — uses Mesha’s snide comment about a political cartoon to get Mesha out of the way in order to clear a path to his mistress. What Kusturica could not have known was that he was also offering us a look into a country that would soon cease to exist with the fall of the Soviet empire — something that gives the film a resonance today that wasn’t there in 1985.

 

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The film’s structure is unusual in that it has no real trajectory. It breaks down into a series of related, but often tangential,episodes. It’s often said that the film is told from the standpoint of six-year-old Malik (Moreno D’E Bartolli), but that’s not entirely true. There are numerous scenes that depict things Malik could not possibly have seen — including the film’s opening. However, Malik more and more becomes the center of the film as it progresses — to a point where it ultimately does reflect his point of view. I don’t think the film is quite great, but it’s certainly fascinating.

Classic World Cinema by Courtyard Gallery will present When Father Was Away on Business Friday, May 23, at 8 p.m. at Phil Mechanic Studios, 109 Roberts St., River Arts District (upstairs in the Railroad Library).  Info: 273-3332, www.ashevillecourtyard.com.

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About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress since December 2000. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

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