Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Emir Kusturica's When Father Was Away on Business is a closely observed story
set in Communist Yugoslavia, not long after it broke away from the Soviet bloc. With a fine
cast, director Kusturica manages a relaxed style that allows us an interesting inside look
at family life under trying conditions.
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 extended Zolj 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
his rehabilitation, and uses Malik as a "chaperone" to allay 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
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 equally
necessary to 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 overall
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.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
When Father Was Away on Business rates:
Video: Good -
Supplements: director interview
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: May 3, 2005
Republished by permission of Turner Classic Movies.
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson