Synopsis: The Zolj family of Sarajevo has a rough time in 1950. Father Mesa (Miki Manojlovic) is having an affair with the sister-in-law of his wife Sena (Mirjana Karanovic). Her brother, a Communist official, hears that Mesa once said that "the party had gone too far," and Mesa is whisked away to a secret work camp, or worse. Warned to not ask any questions, Sena tells her two boys that father is away on business. The younger son Malik has sleepwalking spells. With the family strapped for cash, he gives his mother the money he'd been saving for a soccer ball. They eventually find out that Mesa is alive and working in a mine and are allowed to live with him again. Malik falls in love with a little neighbor girl, the daughter of an emigré doctor banished because of his Russian background. Malik eventually discovers the truth of his father's unfaithfulness.
Mesa Zolj greets his children with a hearty "How are my little Communists?" indicating the flip attitude that will soon land him in hot water with the Party's informers. While the rest of the country feigns enthusiasm for the sanctioned programs for health and military progress, Mesa continues living his old life, going on sales trips twice a month and barely disguising his philandering. He gets into a spat with his mistress, and buys two trinkets from a traveling salesman - one for her and one for his long-suffering Sena back home.
The Zolj's extended family is always nearby. Mesa's father is a crusty old coot who doesn't want to take baths. A lonely neighbor girl can't wait for one of Sena's brothers, Franjo, to return from military duty so they can be married. As everyone lives in muted fear of being denounced for a poor attitude, they take their secrets - bottles of liquor, photos of missing loved ones - to the privacy of the rest room. One of the neighbors' husbands was arrested and simply disappeared; his wife holds a funeral with an empty coffin in defiance of the secrecy surrounding his fate.
When Father Was Away on Business has autobiographical overtones for its director. The older brother is a creative fellow who begs scraps of film leader from the neighborhood projectionist and draws his own animated cartoons on them frame by frame. To counter Malik's sleepwalking habit, his brother rigs a bell to his big toe. The custom in the Balkans is to ritually circumcise young boys, and Malik and his brother find out what that's all about. A touching subplot observes Malik's fondness for the sweet little girl next door. She suffers from a health condition with a doubtful prognosis; when Malik says his farewells to her the film elicits honest tears.
Sena has always been suspicious of Mesa's womanizing, and his indiscretions don't end with his official state punishment. He visits prostitutes with the party official in charge of monitoring his rehabilitation, and uses Malik as a "chaperone" against Sena's accusations. When Sena discovers that the original denunciation that caused so much grief came from her own sister-in-law, she cannot resist assaulting the woman. But at the wedding that ends the film Mesa and the woman are at it again, and little eight year-old Malik realizes what's going on.
Using many small touches and telling details, director Kusturica makes When Father Was Away on Business a moving experience. There is a careful balance between domestic drama and historical context; these people lived in an uncertain time. As the director explains, it was politically essential to love Joseph Stalin one week, and then revile him the next.
Koch Lorber's DVD of When Father Was Away on Business is an acceptable transfer of a film element in good condition, but colors are drab and slightly greenish. The movie opens with a Serbian man singing half in his own language, and half in Spanish, but the language is Serbian. Subtitles are clear and removable. Menus are slowed by poorly managed animation and a picture gallery isn't of the highest quality either. Director Kusturica talks at length about the film in a taped interview marred by a low audio level. None of these drawbacks makes a difference in our appreciation of this very good drama.
by Glenn Erickson