Emir Kusturica: where to start with his films

9 March 2021

One of a small cabal of auteurs to have won the Cannes Palme d’Or twice, Emir Kusturica is the type of filmmaker whose work is always unmistakably their own. His films are defined by their intoxicating passion and constant chaotic energy. His protagonists are usually lovable rogues, often emerging from hardship through Faustian pacts with the world around them that lead both to hedonistic excess and their eventual downfall.

After a pair of made-for-TV films (The Brides Are Coming in 1978 and an adaptation of Yugoslav Nobel Prize winner Ivo Andrić’s Buffet Titanic in 1979), his first proper feature film, Do You Remember Dolly Bell (1981), written by Bosnian poet and writer Abdulah Sidran, introduced the world to a singular talent, adept at mixing drama, black satirical comedy, and a sweeping romantic streak often undercut by a grim sense of irony. His work would get gradually more expansive and ambitious through the years up to Underground (1995) — Kusturica’s most famous film, set in Second World War Belgrade — leading to charges of self-indulgence and excess. But this is also part of his appeal.

A more controversial aspect of Kusturica’s work is what many see as his unwillingness to criticise the Serbian nationalism promoted by Slobodan Milošević (President of Serbia and of the Republic of Yugoslavia in the 80s and 90s and accused of numerous war crimes during the Yugoslav Wars), and during the breakup of Yugoslavia. For a director born in 1954 to a secular Muslim family in multicultural, multi-ethnic, Yugoslav Sarajevo, many of Kusturica’s former compatriots saw this as betrayal. His negative remains today, aided by Kusturica’s current friendship with Milorad Dodik, the hardcore nationalist leader of Republika Srpska, the Serbian entity (a second tier of governmental, political and territorial division) of modern-day Bosnia. Dodik has, to give just one example, called the Srebrenica massacre “a fabricated myth”. This ideological turn towards nationalism manifests itself in his often terrible later work. An example of this decay is Life is a Miracle (2004), where generic Yugonostalgia is combined with Coca-Cola socialism that is in effect a thinly-disguised Serboslavia – the film may suggest a Romeo-and-Juliet fairytale in which “love conquers all and has no boundaries”, but all of its cultural signifiers pin it into a specifically Serbian world.

Some will argue this should not detract from the brilliance and energy of his best work, a run which finishes some time around Black Cat, White Cat (1998). Though Underground may be his best known film, it’s one that should be approached after a good familiarity with his other work and the context surrounding it. The other films here encapsulate all the major trends and obsessions within his filmography. For all of his later flaws, Kusturica’s early films represent an artist in full control of the moving image, with an imagination that seems to expand with every frame, smashing together Latin American magical realism with Eastern European social drama, anarchic surrealism with sobering, sympathetic visions of people at their brink of despair.


When Father Was Away On Business (1985)

Kusturica’s first Palme winner, and the second of his two features written by his regular screenwriter, Bosnian poet Abdulah Sidran, remains his crowning achievement and the best place to start: a roving, ambling tale with a widescreen view of history and a sensitive personal touch. A soap opera-esque drama about family relations set in 1948 amidst the Tito-Stalin split, the film follows Malik (Moreno de Bartoli), whose father Meša (Miki Manojlović) is accused of criticising Tito’s decision to sever ties with the USSR and is sent away to a labour camp. Over the course of the film, Malik learns about the reality behind his dad’s “business trip”.

The film balances the wider political structure in which Yugoslavs lived with the personal trauma underpinning the harsh authoritarianism of the region’s immediate post-war history, in a family torn apart by political and personal jealousies. Yet beneath that, Kusturica deploys a bittersweet romanticism with Malik’s personal coming-of-age; the boy’s move away from idolising his father mirrored the sense of a country moving away from the cult of Tito. The film ends on a note of tense, uneasy rapprochement suggesting both the potential for liberation and an underlying inability to confront the past: two opposite trends that would crash together in Yugoslavia not long after. Kusturica would leave the world of social realism behind very quickly, but When Father and Do You Remember Dolly Bell form a pair of excellent films — still much-loved across the former Yugoslavia — to understand Kusturica’s brief stint with the star film genre at the time.


Time of the Gypsies (1988)

Kusturica’s next stop after his first Palme d’Or success is a dizzying tale of love and loss amidst the Romani community: a heady concoction of cinematic styles that see fabled romanticism crashing against the classic road movie and American crime cinema. The story itself is told in broad brush-strokes — Perhan (Davor Dujmović) is a Romani teenager living in poverty, lovestruck for Azra (Sinolička Trpkova). His grandmother does a deal with local “businessman” Ahmed (Bora Todorović) to take Perhan and his ailing sister to Ljubljana for an operation, but instead the boy is roped into crossing the border to Italy and helping to run Ahmed’s begging and prostitution operations.

Filmed entirely in Romani, the film has the feel of an elemental myth, with searing images giving it a dreamlike feel — a house which walls are suspended into the air in an act of desperation, a wedding veil floating like a ghost in the wind, the longing for home expressed in dreams of grandma’s kitchen. Beneath the film’s mythic, Faustian story, lies a tender, conflicted performance from Dujmović. It’s worth seeking out the extended TV edit of the film if you can.


Black Cat, White Cat (1998)

Perhaps Kusturica’s most entertaining and accessible film (only his sole American feature, Arizona Dream is similar, although even that is lovably offbeat), this farcical comedy tells the story of a feuding group of Roma families by the eastern border of Serbia, near Bulgaria. Once again filmed mostly in Romani, this is Kusturica’s most high-energy film, a non-stop dervish of brass bands and alcoholic excess. Although there is a certain exoticism to the depiction of Romani lives here (one that isn’t so applicable to Time of the Gypsies), this remains an infectious watch.


Underground (1995)

Kusturica’s second Palme d’Or winner is also his most complex, controversial film. The premise is clear — the trials and tribulations of two friends, Marko and Blacky, from the start of the Second World to the beginning of the Yugoslav Wars in the 90s — but its heavy sociopolitical meanings are multiplex and layered. In the film, Blacky goes into hiding to manufacture weapons for the Communist-led resistance fighters, while Marko climbs up the ranks of the Communist Party, and convinces Blacky that the war is not over so that he remains underground. Hailed as a masterpiece by some, the film was denigrated as Serbian nationalist propaganda by others (a broadside notably expressed by French philosopher Alain Finkielkraut, who had not seen the film at the time of his accusation). My own deeply complicated feelings about this film would take too long to express here, but it is that very complexity that keeps people coming back to Underground. Every time you think you’ve “unlocked” the film, it shifts away and becomes something else.

So what is it? A retelling of the history of Yugoslavia from 1941 to 1995? It is too fantastical for that. A satire on the nature of propaganda? Too instinctual. Actual propaganda? Too non-committal. At almost three hours long (or almost six if you can track down the TV edit, aired on Serbian screens in 1996), the film rushes by in a headlong, drunken explosion. But works of art that give us easy answers to complex stories always feel cheap. Underground’s very ugliness and unwillingness to give you those easy answers is part of its powerful allure.

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