Balkan visionary 

When you consider the great national cinematic traditions – such as Italian Neorealism or the French New Wave – Yugoslav cinema doesn’t readily come to mind.

Yugoslav cinema barely existed until after WWII, when a nascent industry began putting out a series of patriotic war epics depicting rugged partisans engaged in a heroic struggle against fascism. Critics compared these films to American westerns, thus dubbing them "easterns." In a nutshell, what came next was the critically acclaimed Zagreb school of animation, then a peak period of creativity in the ’60s that saw the development of the confrontational, often pessimistic avant-garde Novi Film movement, followed by the absurd social satire of the so-called "Prague group" of directors.

Closely associated with the Prague group, the Sarajevan director Emir Kusturica (b. 1954), a current luminary on the international cinematic scene, is at his best when dealing with the complex history and politics of his homeland. His first feature, When Father was Away on Business (1985), which won the Palme d’Or at Cannes, takes place during the late ’40s after Tito, Yugoslavia’s communist leader, had broken with Stalin, and many people were subjected to arbitrary arrest and imprisonment.

The father, Mesa, is an inveterate womanizer, and his mistress also happens to be involved with his wife’s brother, who is a party official. Mesa makes the mistake of casually uttering a comment mildly critical of the government, and when the comment is relayed to Mesa’s brother-in-law, he seizes the opportunity to have his sexual rival sent away to be "re-educated," leaving Mesa’s long-suffering wife and two sons to live in perpetual anxiety, uncertain of his fate.

This luminous film is a collection of small, ordinary, intimate moments, and gains its tremendous power through showing how the accumulation of such moments – of familial and sexual love, betrayal, jealousy, of moral compromise and political corruption – can have far-reaching reverberations which irrevocably alter lives and can rend entire societies.

Time of the Gypsies (1989) is the coming-of-age tale of a gypsy youth named Perhan. Leaving the protective embrace of his witch-like grandmother, Perhan is thrust into the dog-eat-dog brutality of the adult world, finding only loss, exploitation and betrayal.

Present here are the motifs that run through all of Kusturica’s films: communal feasts, brides that float through the air, failed suicide attempts, the centrality of dreams, and a continuous outpouring of music and song which allows the souls of characters and viewers alike to rise above the tragic fray.

The early ’90s found Kusturica teaching at Columbia University, and his subsequent film, Arizona Dream (1991), was made in the United States. Though the emotional timbre never quite coheres, this film nevertheless features fine performances from Faye Dunaway as a spirited, eccentric woman obsessed with flying and younger lovers; Lili Taylor as her morose, suicidally inclined daughter who yearns to be reincarnated as a turtle; Johnny Depp as a young dreamer who becomes involved with both women; Jerry Lewis as Depp’s car salesman uncle; and Vince Gallo who, not only once but twice, must re-create the sequence where Cary Grant dodges a cropdusting plane in Hitchcock’s North by Northwest.

The astonishing Underground (1995) brought Kusturica his second Palme d’Or, and takes on no less than the catastrophe that is the last half-century of Yugoslav history, from the April 6, 1941, Nazi invasion, through Tito’s reign, and on into the current civil war. Parodying the heroic partisan epics of the ’40s, Kusturica’s protagonists here are two decidedly unheroic hooligans – the hot-headed, indestructible loose cannon Blacky and the scheming Marko – best buddies whose exploits are accompanied by an ever-present, manic brass band.

The film opens with the Nazi bombing of Belgrade. The zoo is hit and all manner of animals are set loose into the city. Blacky brazenly ascends the stage of the National Theatre to abduct his lover, the actress Natalija, in front of an audience that includes her German lover, Franz. Blacky is caught and tortured, only to be rescued by Marko, who installs Blacky in his cellar. Marko then proceeds to marry Natalija and to rise within Tito’s government, all the while convincing Blacky and his resistance fighters that they must continue to live in the basement because the war is still on.

Twenty-five years later, after a chimp from the zoo commandeers a tank and blows a hole through the basement wall, Blacky emerges, finding himself in the midst of a film in progress based on his own and Marko’s wartime exploits. Mistaking the film set for reality, Blacky shoots the actor playing Franz and then goes on into the ’90s to become a Serbian militiaman, while Marko becomes a war profiteer.

With its freewheeling comic plot, multi-leveled symbolism, fantastic imagery and Dionysian exuberance, Underground revels in the carnivalesque, evoking a form of cosmic laughter that, in the words of critic Robert Stam, "is no less profound than seriousness or tears" and that takes of the "form of a free and critical consciousness that mocks dogmatism and fanaticism."

In the wake of what fanaticism has wrought, Underground stands as an act of resistance.

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