Emir Kusturica belongs in the select group of film makers who have won the Palme D'Or twice (for both this film and 1995's Underground), a feat which only the likes of Francis Ford Coppola and the Dardenne brothers have matched. I haven't seen any Kusturica films prior to this, but one gets the impression he's quite a frustrating film maker, albeit a remarkably creative one.
'When Father Was Away On Business' is set in 1948 just after the Tito-Stalin split which arose from Yugoslavia's supposed disloyalty towards the Soviet Union and the clash of personalities between the two leaders.Mesa, a womaniser, drunk, but also husband and father is arrested for pro-Soviet sympathies after a casual remark about an anti-Soviet cartoon. His brother in law, who is relatively disapproving and hostile towards Mesa, works for the police and is involved in his arrest.Whilst Mesa is in labour camps for the next two years, life goes on, and Sena struggles to raise her family, whilst also maintaining the lie about what has happened to Mesa - she tells her children that he is away on business.
The narrative is told mainly from the perspective of Malik, one of Mesa and Sena's children, who observes the world of adults from an innocent and naive angle, unaware of the implications of events and what he sees. Malik, an overweight boy has his own problems to deal with growing up, such as sleepwalking and falling in love, which contrast with the dangerous games that adults play.One artistic device Kusturica employs is using commentary of football matches involving the Yugoslavian team to drown out conversations or action made during moments of crisis involving the adults, as if from the children's perspective football is more important or more affecting to them than what is going on around them. Also, Kusturica shows a communist Yugoslavia which is united and comprises all ethnic and racial backgrounds, which contrasts with the explosion of ethnic and racial tension which would explode just a matter of years after this film.
'When Father Was Away on Business' combines whimsical humour with serious drama, though overruns a little and didn't always engage with me. Still, it's a pretty remarkable achievement as it was made in a country that had no cinema history to speak of. Whilst the rest of Eastern Europe was fairly productive cinematically throughout the communist era, Kusturica was the sole Yugoslav director of any note, and this was the first film to attract any real attention in the West. 3.5/5