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.
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.
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.