MORENO D'E BARTOLLI plays a pudgy little Communist whose boyhood memories are the focus of the Yugoslavian family portrait "When Father Was Away on Business," the earthy, nostalgic and sometimes sluggish winner of a Golden Palm at Cannes this year.
Director Emir Kusturica sets a scene as folksy as a Jean Shepherd short story, full of family and the flavor of a nation in transition. It's a picture so pungent you can practically smell the borscht on the burner. And not since the Shmenge Brothers' retirement have I heard more accordion music.
In postwar Sarajevo, men wear hairnets, women have mustaches and the children look like walking dumplings. Malik Malkoc (Bartolli) is an adorable first-grader primarily interested in soccer and saving up enough dinars to get his own ball. His older brother is a myopic film nerd, and his mother is a long-suffering soul who tries to keep the family together when father is called away on business.
Actually dad is sent to a labor camp, but political imprisonment was so common in the postwar period that the euphemism "being away on business" became part of the language.
Miki Manojlovic, the Serbo-Croatian answer to Clark Gable, plays father, a dandy who trims the hair from his nostrils to impress the sturdy Slavic babes. And his promiscuity, not his ideology, gets him into trouble when a jealous lover reports him to the thought police.
Mirjana Karanovic is enduring as Mom, with her big troubled eyes and strong face. The whole cast, all of it good, seems to stare out from the cheap gray film like relatives from home movies. But Yugoslavian family get- togethers are nothing like Sunday dinner with mom.
In fact, father disappears one night after the Malkocs celebrate the ritual circumcisions of Malik and his older brother by their uncle the barber. "Now you are real men," says dad before departing on his mysterious trip.
None the worse for wear, little Malicky- icky-sticky, as his pals call him, falls in love for the first time, kicks his soccer ball into a wedding cake, and forgets his speech before an important party official on May Day, like a little Midwestern kid forgetting his lines in the school play.
Dad, now released from work camp, may very well be imprisoned for Malik's gaffe, but he hugs the youngster anyway. "You're my little Communist," he reassures him before wandering off for a good stiff vodka.
"Father" is no hard-nosed political diatribe, but a frank and affectionate, if faltering, assessment of the family's struggle to survive the state.