Emir Kusturica: Uncovering the Brilliant ‘Balkanized’ Filmmaker
Cinema is supposed to be the mirror of our times. If that is true, then there is nothing more interesting than witnessing the work of an auteur living through a period of drastic socio political transition. Emir Kusturica’s Serbian cinema deals with his fragmented motherland and raises more controversies than most others. And yet it entertains more than most tailor-made potboilers. Kusturica’s ideologies and political commentaries are detested by a good section of his people, but it is barely possible to brush over his astounding imagery or poignant humane moments. With his humour bordering on absurdity and quirkiness, he is probably the most entertaining filmmaker of the present generation.
Kusturica’s films are deeply rooted in his homeland, yet universal in their appeal. While his milieu is not cosmopolitan, his craft is. He seamlessly blends the themes of magic realism with slices of life from the region that literally contributed the word “Balkanization” to the dictionary. Of course he is not without his detractors. His connections with Slobodan Milosevic will especially always remain under scrutiny. It is hard to comment on these aspects as a distant observer from a faraway land but one cannot just ignore the picaresque delight that his oeuvre provides to cinema lovers, no matter where they hail from.
Kusturica’s Magical Realism
The first Kusturica film was Do You Remember Dolly Bell? (1981). It was the time when Yugoslavia was still intact. The film is mostly a realistic coming of age story of a young boy in Sarajevo who falls in love with an attractive prostitute. It was closer to the neorealist dramas that we have come to expect from a post-war Europe. While it is still an important work of Yugoslav cinema, it was devoid of the trademark style of Kusturica’s later works. His more successful second film When Father Was Away on Business (1985) also retains his political realism. On the surface it is a family drama – again through the eyes of a young boy. But it carries in its heart a staunch criticism of the communist society of the erstwhile Yugoslavia.
Time of the Gypsies (1988) is not only an endearing fantasy but a documentation of Romani culture, their life and struggles – where “coming of age” only means an introduction to the harsh realities of that life. This is also the first film that amply showcases Kusturica’s penchant for surreal imagery.
Kusturica, as we know him today, finally came into existence with Time of the Gypsies (1988). In order to deliver the magical part, he turned to an exotic community – the Romani people – a nomadic populace spread all over Europe but who trace back their origins to India. He again tells the story of a young boy, but this time with supernatural ‘telekinetic’ powers. It is not only an endearing fantasy but a documentation of Romani culture, their life and struggles – where “coming of age” only means an introduction to the harsh realities of that life. This is also the first film that amply showcases Kusturica’s penchant for surreal imagery.
A Hollywood Adventure
Next came, Arizona Dreams (1993), a Hollywood film starring Johnny Depp and Faye Dunaway among others – an interesting proposition because for the first time he was out of his comfort zone. The Balkans and the gypsies were out of question in this American setting. But here he summons another exotic race – the Eskimos – albeit in dreams. There is again a young man falling for an older woman, troubled relationships, gratifying dream sequences and quirky film references, especially a hilarious one to Hitchcock’s North by Northwest. While it is again a satisfying watch, something felt amiss – may be ’cause Kusturica stood detached from his roots.
Back to the Roots
This finally brings us to his magnum opus – Underground (1995) – a true epic in all respects. This story of two “friends” spans almost five decades, taking the audience through the various phases of the Yugoslavian history including the World War II, the subsequent Communist regime and finally the disintegration of the nation and the Balkan Wars. The friends here are not really ideal friends. Difficult times easily bring the worst out of them – it does not take much time for one to betray the other. Through an outlandish plot of a bunch of people brainwashed into living underground, it achieves the perfect depiction of the totalitarian Communist regime.Kusturica’s films are deeply rooted in his homeland, yet universal in their appeal. While his milieu is not cosmopolitan, his craft is. He seamlessly blends the themes of magic realism with slices of life from the region that literally contributed the word “Balkanization” to the dictionary.
What was simmering in his earlier films finally explodes through Underground, his first native film after the disintegration of his motherland. His politics here is coated with dark humour, which in turn is elevated by his surreal imagery. It is understandable that the subject matter and treatment of this film instantly attracts polemic reactions but this is where the success of this film lies. The moral ambiguity – or probably a complete lack of morals – on the part of the characters mirrors our all-consuming lust for power. It is this that makes Underground a timeless cautionary tale that encompasses far more ground than its geographical backdrop seemingly offers.
Kusturica’s next film is probably his most delightful. With Black Cat, White Cat (1998) he gets back to more simplistic themes with another idyllic backdrop – a romantic comedy with some rustic music and family drama. Two old friends, their relationships with their children and grandchildren, young lovers fighting over an arranged marriage – everything woven into a consistently amusing narrative. An old man repeatedly watches his favourite film Casablanca, while a pig constantly nibbles at a dilapidated automobile and a gangster snorts coke from a cross-shaped box. You may not figure out what all of these mean – some of them may not mean anything at all! But the real joy is in watching the narrative unfold across a terrain that is far removed from our urban consciousness.
Kusturica’s Drvengrad and beyond
After a few years of hiatus, Kusturica returned to his much-loved political themes with Life is a Miracle (2004). This time the story is set right at the time of the civil war. With a family torn by circumstances, a seemingly improbable yet searing cross border love story and a nation ravaged by war, this seems the most formulaic of all his films. Nevertheless, a generous dose of Kusturica’s trademark absurdist humour and sweeping visuals saves the film from becoming a caricature of its own predecessors. But what is interesting is that he built an entire village for the film. Drvengrad – not merely a set but a full-fledged locality – a place the director has apparently called home since.If the greatness of a film is measured by the universality of the emotions it evokes, all of Emir Kusturica’s films should qualify simply because they engage, entertain and even enlighten by rising above their constrained geography.
Emir Kusturica is probably the most difficult filmmaker to write about, along with Luis Bunuel. Words cannot describe his work. The colourful and eccentric universe of his films can only be experienced on celluloid. If the greatness of a film is measured by the universality of the emotions it evokes, all of his films should qualify simply because they engage, entertain and even enlighten by rising above their constrained geography.
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