ESFS Festivals

“When Father Was Away on Business” Movie Review By Daniel Barnes

When Father Was Away on Business

When Father Was Away on Business (1985; Emir Kusturica)


By Daniel Barnes

If you look at the recent history of the Cannes Film Festival, it’s pretty clear that for all of their emphasis on unique cinematic voices, there is a certain type of film that tends to win the Palme d’Or. Cannes is infinitely more auteur-driven than the Academy Awards, but like the Oscar, the Palme d’Or has become imbued with a phony prestige over the years. You can’t just give the Palme fucking d’Or to something frivolous like Shrek 2 (which played in competition at the 2004 festival), you need to give it to something “important,” which is why genre winners like Pulp Fiction and All That Jazz are extremely rare.

Cannes juries tend to favor small-scale human dramas played out against either a large cultural canvas or a significant sociopolitical moment. If you look at the Palme d’Or winners from 2000 to present, almost every single film fits that description – Dancer in the Dark, Uncle Boonmee…, The Tree of Life in the former category, The Wind That Shakes the Barley, 4 Months…, The White Ribbon, The Pianist in the latter, Elephant and The Child a little of each – and so do all three of the films in this festival. The Ballad of Narayama and Paris, Texas painted their simple family dynamics onto that large cultural canvas.

However, Emir Kusturica’s 1985 winner When Father Was Away on Business falls into the other category, setting its coming-of-age story in the significant sociopolitical moment of Sarajevo 1950.  The film takes place shortly after socialist Yugoslavian dictator Tito split with Stalin and Communist Russia, and the plot hinges on concepts of infidelity, authoritarianism, and dehumanization, but Kusturica’s sardonic twist is to tell the film through the eyes of a small child.

“Black Market Peddlers and Banal Paranoia”

The “Father” of the title is a mustachioed, hairnet-wearing cad and “fun Dad” whose extramarital affairs are an open secret.  However, he gets punished with “voluntary work in that mine” after his mistress repeats a harmless comment about a political cartoon to a party official.  After his imprisonment, the father is sent to a shit-water burg to be “reconstructed,” but he abides.  After all, they have booze and whores there, too.  Meanwhile, the boy pines for a real leather football, while the wife bottles her rage and acts “as if nothing happened.”

Kusturica’s film has a much drabber palette than the lushly natural tones of Narayama or the pop-art colors of Paris, Texas, but the graininess fits this world of black market peddlers and banal paranoia. Poor is poor here.  Even the home of the puffed-up official appears devoid of simple comforts, beyond a spare pistol and a self-righteous superiority.  It’s not a particularly dynamic film, but I liked Kusturica’s compact camera moves and bleary sense of whimsy.  Things threaten to get a little too twinkly-eyed at times, especially in regards to the boy’s penchant for sleepwalking.  Still, Kusturica generally keeps things grounded and recognizable.

There’s a bawdy boisterousness to the film’s depiction of a dictatorial bureaucracy that recalls the Polish films of Milos Forman, especially his 1967 Best Foreign Film Oscar winner The Firemen’s Ball.  When Father Was Away on Business would be pitch-black if it wasn’t so humane.  Much of the humor is gently cutting in a Forman-esque fashion, such as the highlight scene where the boy thwarts his parents’ attempt at a conjugal visit.  As it turns out, Forman chaired the 1985 Cannes jury that bestowed the award on When Father…, so maybe all you need to win the Palme d’Or is a little bit of luck.

Read more of Daniel’s reviews at Dare Daniel and Rotten Tomatoes, and listen to Daniel on the Dare Daniel podcast.