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The Films of Emir Kusturica

Bosnian director Emir Kusturica films run the gamut from surreal black comedy to family drama to incisive political message but all are very personal and intimately involved with conveying to Western audiences the Slavic soul and the turmoil the people have faced in the last twenty years. Although his films deal with politics, the director's vision is broader than any simple message and his films are primarily works of cinematic poetry, comparable to the style of Fellini and the magic realism of Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

Emir Kusturica's first film Do You Remember Dolly Bell? (1981) is a bittersweet comedy set in the former Yugoslavia during the 1960s. The film, which won the Golden Lion Prize at the 1981 Venice Film Festival, is both a coming of age story and a tribute to the city of Sarajevo, long before it was devastated by civil war. To the chagrin of his strict Communist father (Slobodan Aligrudic), sixteen-year old Dino (Slavo Stimac) is more into hypnosis and self-help mantras than Marxist ideology. He recites the phrase "Every day in every way I'm getting better and better" and sings in a new band mandated by the local Eastern European bureaucracy as they relax the Communist grip and allow some influence of Western culture.

Dino's family of six live in a cramped one-room house while they wait for state housing. The father drinks excessively and the family is poor. Through Dino's relationship with Sonny, an unsavory pimp, he meets a cabaret singer and prostitute Dolly Bell (Ljiljana Blagojevic), named after a stripper in an Italian film they had seen recently at the Culture Club. Dino's sweet innocence captivates the young girl, and the two form a bond that results in Dino's sexual initiation and first love affair. While Dolly Bell lacks the polish and cinematic flair of Kusturica's later work, it is an honest and intelligent film, one that avoids sentimentality and provides compelling insight into what it meant to grow up in Eastern Europe during the sixties.

When Father Was Away on Business (1985) is set in Yugoslavia in 1950 just after the break between Stalin and Tito. It was a time of confusion when people worshipped Stalin one week and despised him the next. Winner of the award for Best Film at the 1985 Cannes Film Festival and Academy Award nominee for Best Foreign Film, Kusturica's blend of comedy, family drama, and political realism is courageous, funny, and deeply moving. The title of the film refers to the lie told to a six-year-old to cover up the fact that his father was serving time in a labor camp for making a thoughtless remark that offended the Communist apparatchiks.

The story is told from the perspective of six-year-old Malik (Moreno D'E Bartolli) and his performance is natural and convincing. His father Mesa (Miki Manojlovic) is a low-level bureaucrat who spends more time womanizing and drinking than attending to his job. A casual remark filled with sarcasm about a political cartoon made to his wife Sena's (Mirjana Karanovic) sister-in-law Ankica (Mira Furlan), leads to his arrest and detention by Zijo (Mustafa Nadarevic), a Communist Party official who also happens to be his wife's brother. Mesa is sent to work in the mines while Sena becomes a seamstress to make ends meet and his sensitive son starts sleepwalking, perhaps a wry metaphor for the status of the people under Marshal Tito.

The family does reunite when Mesa is sent to a remote settlement for further resocialization but he does not change his ways and visits prostitutes with the party official in charge of his rehabilitation, using Malik as his escort. Though family relations are strained, especially between Sena, Zijo, and Ankica, the family is very strong and we know that somehow they will endure. When Father Was Away on Business is perhaps the least daring cinematically of all of Kusturica's works but it is one of the most heartfelt and gained the director his first international success, paving the way for the full maturation of his vision in the brilliant and disturbing Underground .

Based on a 1985 story about the kidnapping of hundreds of Gypsy children by Yugoslavs who sold them to Americans and Italians, Time of the Gypsies (1988) is the story of an orphaned boy who leaves his home and falls prey to ruthless exploiters of children. The film received a five-minute standing ovation at the 1990 Cannes Film Festival where Kusturica won the award for Best Director, yet unfortunately provides a view of the Romas that simply reinforces stereotypes about the culture.

Perhan (Davor Dujmovic) is an idealistic young man who is adept at telekinesis (the ability to move objects without touching them). He lives just outside of Skopje with his grandmother Hatidja (Ljubica Adzovic), his uncle Merdjan (Husnija Hasimovic), and his sister Danira (Elvira Sali) who suffers from a bone disease. The film strongly emphasizes the traditional values of Gypsy culture personified by the warm and caring grandmother whose healing powers are well known to the village. The main theme of the film is the punishment meted out by the spirits to Perhan when he moves away from these values. Perhan is in love with a village girl named Azra (Sinolicka Trpkova) but his attempts to marry her are rejected by her stern mother because he lacks money, uncharacteristically placing material wealth over spiritual values.

Determined to be considered worthy of marrying Azra, Perhan is easy prey for Ahmed, a criminal originally from the village, who has become rich by selling children to Italians and forcing them to beg and steal for him. At first unwilling to earn money dishonestly, Perhan soon discards his idealism for the pursuit of money and goes into business with Ahmed, recruiting children for sale and putting beggars to work collecting money. In the process, Perhan becomes as ruthless and unforgiving as Ahmed when, after Ahmed suffers a stroke, he takes over the business.

Time of the Gypsies dazzles us with moving cans, and spoons climbing up the wall but left me with little true understanding of the Romani culture. Kusturica shows them as lying, thieving, and whoring, but never talks about the racism in society that led them to their way of life, or about the sixty to eighty percent unemployment rate for Gypsies in Central Europe . While Time of the Gypsies contains an often-enchanting magical realism and its story about the corruption of innocence has universal appeal, the film left me feeling empty and dissatisfied.

Underground is a bold recreation of the events that led to the breakup of the country we knew as Yugoslavia , spanning the years of the Nazi invasion of World War II to the present wars. The film has been called Serbian propaganda, self-indulgent, an anti-Communist tract, an anti-war tome, cynical, nihilistic, and it may be any or all of those, but primarily it is a work of art whose surreal vision and poetic language makes any search for a coherent message elusive.

Underground traces the lives of Marco (Miki Manojlovic) and Blacky (Lazar Ristovski), two charming but immoral black market profiteers who fight the Nazis while hiding in a massive cellar with friends and family where they produce and sell munitions. Marko and Blacky both compete for the attention of actress Natalija (Mirjana Jokovic) after Blacky's wife Vera (Mirjana Karanovic) dies in childbirth, but Natalija plays both of them off against the German soldier Franz ((Ernst Stotzner). After the war, perhaps as a metaphor for the constricting rule of President Tito, Marko fails to inform the underground community that the war has ended, keeping everyone in the dark so that he can support the Communist regime and make a profit selling arms to middlemen.

Natalija helps Marco keep up the charade when he makes Blacky into a venerated national hero even though he is still alive. Underground is an exuberantly entertaining three-hour carnival filled with wild characters, singing, drinking, and fighting and a brass band that keeps the energy high with Gypsy melodies. While it is a broad comedy that often descends into borderline lunacy, it is also a tragic vision of the betrayal of a people. Its final Felliniesque image of all the characters reunited on a piece of land drifting into the sea tells more than the obvious metaphor of a broken land and a broken people. It is a testament to the endurance, the acceptance of life, and the commitment to joy of the Yugoslav people and a passionate cry for their regeneration.

©2005 Howard Schumann
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