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Careless words cost

It's a familiar favourite in modern political dramas, the ordinary guy living in a communist state who says the wrong thing and is whipped off to an internment camp. The roots of such stories are factual, of course, and highlighting the injustice of the oppression of free speech is both valid and important, but is often observed in simplistic terms – say something even remotely anti-communist and you're for it, mate. It's typical of Emir Kusturica's second feature, following on from the wonderfully observed Do You Remember Dolly Bell?, that in exploring this concept he partially inverts it. Here the unknowing Mesa Malkoc is arrested not for his anti communist sentiments, but his pro-communist ones.

This is Sarajevo in 1950, two years after Yugoslavia was expelled from the Communist Information Bureau as a result of increasing disharmony between Josip Tito and Joseph Stalin and a refusal on Tito's part to toe the Moscow line. Following the split, those who had supported the Russian revolution and continued to express pro-Russian sentiments (known as "Cominformists") soon found themselves intimidated into silence or shipped off to prison camps to re-evaluate their beliefs.

Initially all this is background detail to Kusturica's tale, alluded to in voice-over by Mesa's six-year-old son Malik, whose best friend Joza's father was taken away by "men in leather coats" after proclaiming publicly "I'd rather have Russian shit than American cake!" It is from young Malik's view that the story is primarily – though not exclusively – told. His understanding of the arrest of Joza's father is only that "it was something to do with Stalin."

We are shown up front that the unfortunate Mesa is no saint. A devoted father to Malik and the owlish Mirza, he is nonetheless having an affair with the gym teacher Ankika, who is furious at him for continually failing to divorce is wife Sena, something he clearly has no intention of doing. Ankika's annoyance eventually leads her into the arms of Mesa's brother-in-law, a high ranking party official, to whom she repeats an offhand remark made by Mesa against a newspaper cartoon lampooning Stalin. In no time at all Mesa is called to Party headquarters and shipped off to a gulag. Young Malik, who has little understanding of such things, is told that his father is "away on business."

If Kusturica's debut feature was a surprise for those coming to it retrospectively from his later work, then When Father Was Away on Business will prove doubly so. Displaying none of the madcap eccentricity of the post-Time of the Gypsies films, When Father Was Away on Business plays its drama largely straight, the light-hearted moments being believably and engagingly character based. There is little joy of innocence in Malik's view of events, more a sadness at his father's absence coupled with at the complexities of growing up, physiologically manifested in his episodes of sleepwalking, which alternately place him in physical peril and at the house of the young girl he has fallen in love with. Typical of European cinema of the period, this relationship is handled with honesty and sensitivity and not wrapped in a blanket of coyness.

How the family cope with Mesa's absence, with the lack of news of his whereabouts and the strain it puts on Sena in particular, becomes the focus of the film's midsection. Our involvement with them is such that an eventual visit to the camp in which Mesa is held proves an emotionally powerful reunion, and following his release the sadness that accompanies the family's forced departure from Sarajevo is poignantly realised. But even here Kusturica avoids the obvious, with Mesa as unfaithful to Sena as ever, and a later family reunion proving a compelling mixture of the uncomfortable and the unexpected, with the occasional moment of real emotional pain (in one extraordinary example, whose details I cannot divulge, the mood switches from tragic to comic and back again in the space of a few seconds). The result is a moving, vivid, but never sensationalist picture of a family struggling to maintain its cohesion, all affected negatively in some way by a system whose only real function seems to be to protect itself at any cost.

The film also most effectively illustrates the absurdity of the oppression of free speech and any system used to try and enforce it, a message too often associated only with countries and political systems that are not our own. Many times I have heard the argument in favour of greater powers being given to police and government agencies to investigate private citizens being qualified by the suggestion that if you have nothing to hide then you have nothing to worry about, naïvely simplistic reasoning that takes no account of the human factor. Mesa's arrest for an ultimately innocuous remark is clearly ridiculous, but such draconian restrictions on free speech inevitably result in a system that is open to serious abuse, and all it takes here is one offhand comment, one disgruntled ex-girlfriend and one jealous brother-in-law to see that system misused for personal ends. Kustirica's final message seems targeted deliberately at those who would enforce the silence, suggesting that even in a system with no legal redress, there is still a heavy moral and spiritual price to be paid for their actions.

sound and vision

As with Artificial Eye's simultaneous release of Do You Remember Dolly Bell?, the framing is 1.66:1, but here the picture is not anamorphically enhanced. The positive trade-off is that the image quality is noticeably superior, a more solid source print clearly having been used for the transfer. Contrast and detail are for the most part very good – only an early scene with Mesa and Ankika on a train displays weakness in these areas.

The Dolby mono 2.0 track is serviceable, though is a little crisp on some of the dialogue trebles.

extra features

The Emir Kusturica interview (18:07) was clearly conducted in the same session as the one on the Dolly Bell disc and is similarly interesting, with the director discussing the European feel of the film and the importance of not pandering to western expectations, amongst other things.

There is also a concise Emir Kusturica Biography and the same Trailers for Black Cat, White Cat (1:35), Underground (1:04) and Life is a Miracle (1:41) that you'll find on the Dolly Bell disc.


A very different film to the fast-paced, eccentric comedies that would later become a Kusturica speciality, When Father Was Away on Business is a thoughtful, involving and movingly human story that continues to be relevant in a world where those who speak freely can still find themselves silenced by the might of governments, religion or multi-national corporations. It remains one of the director's most highly regarded works and landed him the Palme D'Or at Cannes in 1985, a feat he was to repeat ten years later with Underground.

Artificial Eye's DVD is a decent enough if unspectacular job, gaining points for the picture quality but losing a few for being non-anamorphic, though it pulls a couple back again for the Kusturica interview. The film itself is the draw here, and that's a winner.

When Father Was Away on Business
Otac na sluzbenom put

129 mins
Emir Kusturica
Moreno D'E Bartolli
Miki Manojlovic
Mirjana Karanovic
Mustafa Nadarevic
Mira Furlan
Pavle Vujisic
Slobodan Aligrudic
Eva Ras

DVD details
region 2
1.66:1 letterboxed
Dolby mono 2.0
Interview with Emir Kusturica
Artificial Eye
release date
21 August 2006
review posted
1 September 2006

related reviews
Do You Remember Dolly Bell?
Black Cat, White Cat

See all of Slarek's reviews