Director Emir Kusturica calls his movie "When Father Was Away on Business" "a historical love story," and the greatest love of all is between Kusturica and his characters. Tender as late Truffaut, slyly funny as a Kundera novel, "When Father Was Away on Business" is a family portrait that, by the end, finds the pulse of a nation.
The nation is Yugoslavia; the era, the period of political confusion that followed World War II. Mesha (Miki Manojlovic), a horse-faced man with the smeary black mustache of a self-styled Lothario, makes an offhand remark to his mistress Ankica (Mira Furlan); she reports it to Mesha's brother-in-law, Zijo (Mustafa Nadarevic), a Party official.
Mesha winds up in political prison to be "resocialized," but to his family, he's "away on business." His wife Senija (Mirjana Karanovic) pleads with her brother, to no avail; the boys, Mirza (Davor Dujmovic), whose whole face seems to be plastered down with water, and his younger brother, 6-year-old Malik (Moreno D'E Bartolli), go about growing up, which seems to consist mostly of a mania for soccer.
Part of Kusturica's achievement lies in the seemingly artless way he shifts his point of view. Everyone is given his due, everyone respected, though much of the movie comes from the perspective of Bartolli's Malik, a chunky kid with the girth and all-seeing eyes of someone at the other end of life. He's a gem, with the subtle feel for comic counterpoint of a pint-size Buster Keaton, and an utter lack of self-consciousness that puts American child actors to shame. As he bounces through his family's turmoil, you understand why he wants a real leather soccer ball so much -- he identifies with it.
Malik takes up sleepwalking; his brother, as a countermeasure, ties bells to his toes. These nighttime strolls -- tinkling bells, swatches of lambent-lit, pastel color -- lend "When Father Was Away on Business" a magical aura. Again, Kusturica is able to make subtle shifts seamlessly; the mood of the movie is part magic, part knockabout farce, part political satire, part melodrama, all somehow whole. Kusturica can come up with striking images -- the menace of Mesha's interviews with his brother-in-law is condensed in a close-up of a whirring, inexorably rotating office fan -- but he weighs them like a jeweler. By refusing to show off, he preserves his symbols' impact.
"When Father Was Away on Business" has a lazy pace; the movie constantly detours into gratuitous life, and it's layered with the characteristically Slavic humor of ineffectual despair (one of the characters tries, unsuccessfully, to hang himself with a toilet chain). The result is a rare bird today: a movie with the porous texture of real life. "Who loves anybody in this madhouse?" protests Mesha, and the answer is simple: everyone.