Some drab-looking Yugoslavs endure family skirmishes during the postwar taffy pull between Stalin and Tito. No stars, no hardware, no ravishing landscapes, no shimmering sex. Two hours and 24 minutes long. Right, Maude--let's run out and see When Father Was Away on Business! As it happens, there is every reason to catch this endearing memory movie, which won the Palme d'Or at the 1985 Cannes International Film Festival. The memory is that of the Bosnian poet Abdulah Sidran, who fashioned his script from events affecting a Muslim community in Sarajevo from 1949 to 1952. The vision belongs to Director Emir Kusturica, 31; at his touch a story of regional peculiarities takes on the patina of Chagallian surrealism.
Father (Miki Manojlovic) is a functionary in the Yugoslav Department of Labor and, whenever he gets the chance, a dedicated philanderer. During a tryst on a train, he deflects pleas of love from a randy gym teacher with an offhand "Who loves anybody in this madhouse?" Before you can say "compulsory resocialization," he is sent to a labor camp--or, as his six-year-old son Malik (Moreno D'E Bartolli) is told, "Father is away on business."
Malik has a few problems of his own: he is a chronic sleepwalker and an irrepressible imp. When Mama (Mirjana Karanovic) snags a few intimate moments alone with Father, Malik feigns a fit of sleepwalking; Mama resignedly gets out of bed and lullabies the boy to sleep. When she returns to make love to her husband, she finds him asleep. When Malik crawls into bed between his parents, Father embraces him, and Mama is left awake and alone. In the film's loveliest scene, Malik sleepwalks out of his bed, down the stairs, out of the house, down the street, into the home of the little girl he fell in love with that day, and straight into her bed. Young lust has rarely been expressed so sweetly.
Father can be seen as political satire in microcosm. As Kusturica said recently, "There were a lot of sleepwalkers in Yugoslavia back then." But its viewpoint is applicable beyond Eastern Europe. It suggests that life is a series of small revolutions against, and accommodations to, the prevailing power, whether ideological, social, sexual or parental; and that flight into a dreamscape like Malik's may be the only sensible solution. The little boy's somnambulism leads him to a consuming first love, to the top of a mountain and, in the final shot, into delicious complicity with the viewer. In the mind, or in movies, we can all be rebels.