Filmmaker Retrospective: The Hysterical Cinema of Emir Kusturica

There are two main images that instantly rise to mind when the words “Serbia” and “Cinema” appear together: the controversial “A Serbian Film” by Srdjan Spasojevic and the face of one of the most talented directors that Europe saw born in last decades, Emir Kusturica. For now, let’s just forget the blood and necrophilia of the 2010’s film and focus on Emir’s world vision, his identity, obsessions, existentialism and Balkan culture.

Offering viewers a ticket to a baroque, surrealist and never-before-visited reality, Kusturica likes to blend his stories and characters with unique visual elements, always building an atmosphere full of traditional lifestyles that glisten in the background.

Highly influenced by all types of art, such as painting, sculpture, literature or cinema, Kusturica usually mixes authors and art pieces with his imagination or with his Balkan culture, conceiving cultural products with a kind of aura.

As a lover of life and creative freedom, this Serbian seeks to employ realism seasoned with dreams and desires that are familiar to any people, nation, ethnicity or country. He does this by painting individuals exactly the way they are: drinking, dancing, laughing out loud, fighting and fornicating.

Other notorious trait that makes Emir Kusturica special is his curiosity and constant interest in seeing, listening and experiencing new things, which is why he enjoys being self-taught and tries to do many things in many areas. The “jack of all trades” is always seeking to express himself through many disciplines, and he currently is a filmmaker, musician, writer and architect.

In the end, all of Kusturica’s efforts concentrate on the aforesaid cultural differences, the beauty of diversity, and an obsession with allegorical thinking. Because of this, it’s not strange at all if in the same film we see artistic features of authors like Magritte, Buñuel and José Saramago or Akutagawa, all embraced in one of Kusturica’s plots.

Besides being recognized as one of the most fascinating and original storytellers of our time, Emir is also widely lauded by critics, and he has won multiple awards during his career. His name is part of the small range of filmmakers who have won the Palm D’or twice, along with such names as Michael Haneke, Francis Ford Coppola or Shohei Imamura.

Ultimately, Kusturica’s films didn’t have the impact of the past, but the director is planning a new story about war, love and drama that is expected to be released within this year. More than with prizes and awards, Emir Kusturica’s filmography deserves to be appreciated with sensibility, a sense of humor and cultural openness.

This list is a summary of the exploration of new feelings, cultures and behaviors that Kusturica’s genial and purposefully naïve mind has expressed through characters and symbols. Welcome to the universe of Emir Kusturica, where every story is a trip with no scheduled return and no charge to ride.


1. Guernica (1978)

Guernica (1978)

Emir Kusturica started to show his style and sensibility at a young age, surprising his professors and others around him. At the age of 24, Emir was already working for Yugoslavian television, making films and intimately learning the seventh art.

During that learning period, there is a short movie that shares its name with a Picasso painting and synthetizes the entire world vision that is so characteristic of Kusturica. “Guernica” takes us to our childhood innocence, in which every day is an adventure that brings new unanswered questions.

The story takes place during World War II and tells the story of a Jewish kid who is fascinated by Guernica’s world. Roger presents himself as a curious child – always asking questions and exploring everything he sees – and he may be a representation of how Kusturica was as a child.

The film has a very simple aesthetic, using black and white to guide an existentialist story about day and night, lightness and darkness, fear and courage… Those colors (or the absence of color) capture the central idea of the film: contrast. While the kid is fixated on Picasso’s “Guernica”, the story is involved in poetic dialogue and metaphorical speech that euphemistically convey the World War II paradigm.

Within 17 minutes, this short has lots of hidden meanings that constantly ornament the narrative, perhaps because this is not a World War II story but rather a portrait of the complexity of the world and the differences between men. As George Orwell writes in Animal Farm, “all animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.”

In the same way Roberto Benigni creates an imaginary game to protect his son in a concentration camp in “Life is Beautiful”, in “Guernica” we see Roger’s father inventing a club where everybody needs to use a ribbon to be a member. The difference between the films is that Roger’s father ends his conversation with one of the strongest lines of the movie: “We are Jews, do you understand? Impure and inferior race.”

Another epic and poetic line occurs when Roger asks his father why Picasso painted Guernica the way he did, and the man replies that “when Nazis asked him recently if he painted it, he [Picasso] replied: no, it wasn’t me, this is your work.”

We know Picasso painted Guernica as a response to the Nazi bombing of the Basque Country in Spain, but no one knows if “the man that has no fear of the dark” really told that to the Germans; nevertheless, it remains a wonderful line.

This first effort by Kusturica turns out to be more an artistic work than a simple story, since it thoughtfully combines all of its elements to create a holistic concept: contrast. All is connected: from Roger’s questions to his parents’ difficult decisions, or from the cubism of Picasso to the cuts that Roger makes in his family pictures.

Guernica’s atmosphere lives in this short film, and the Jewish boy lives in that painting. At the end of the day, all is easier when we are little and the world is beautiful.


2. Do You Remember Dolly Bell? (1981)

Do you remember Dolly Bell (1981)

Although Kusturica is seen as a Serbian citizen, he was actually born in Bosnia-Herzegovina, and he truly respects his Bosnian roots. Hence, his first feature film takes place in Sarajevo during the ‘60s, and it was a pleasant surprise not only in Europe, but everywhere that it was distributed.

“Do You Remember Dolly Bell?” tells the story of a Yugoslavian boy who gives shelter to a friend’s prostitute and ends up falling in love with her. But, obviously, there is much more than this…

Dino is a teenager who is interested in hypnosis and the prospect of manipulating others with it, but he fails to use it properly while learning some important lessons about life, politics, crime, addiction and women. The evolution of Dino’s character is remarkable during the film and so are the conversations he has with his father, a tough-but-fair and bizarre man.

The ethnicity and cultural habits, as usual with Emir Kusturica, are well expressed throughout the entire film, particularly in the family dinners and in some small crimes that the characters commit. Yugoslavian teenagers are so criminal that a dance club is created to distract them from their bad habits; this club turns to be very important for Dino’s life.

Some supporting actors are not very good, but that is forgivable thanks to the powerful feeling that Kusturica offers with his sober, realistic way of filming and the atmosphere created by the energetic way people smoke, drink, sing and dance, all of which is so strange to occidental people. Music has an important role in the film.

At one point, Dino plays guitar, and he also likes to sing an Italian ‘60s hit called “24,000 Baci,” which means “24,000 kisses” in English and is a really catchy song. The soundtrack by Zoran Simjanovic includes some Gypsy tunes that convey happiness and festivity during some dark and sad events.

Music also serves to show the culture of these richly-characterized places, where all the people know and talk with each other and where the sounds of carousels and loud music fill the air.

“Do You Remember Dolly Bell?” is also a funny sketch of how life was in Eastern Europe at the time. Dino shows us such youthful hardships as his first cigar and his treatment at the hands of his aggressive older brother and peculiar father.

The movie also portrays an interesting discovery of the opposite sex, as Dolly Bell has a very important part in Dino’s life. Kusturica crosses the physical attributes of Dolly Bell with the beautiful mind of Dino, piecing these aspects together as the characters come to know each other. The sexually naïve and ignorant boy serves as a symbol to the period when sex was taboo and teenagers were not informed about such matters.

The film’s entire 110-minute duration exudes that Gypsy culture, full of people eating with their hands and with wide-open mouths as they talk endlessly about communism. Using Dino’s love for hypnosis, Kusturica compares a communist leader with a hypnotist, since both must manipulate other people.

Emir pays a proud tribute to his home country of Bosnia, in other words, to a nation full of joy, quick rhythm, vertiginous dancing and… a poor, sad life. During the film, Dino repeats constantly to himself that he is “improving every day in every way.” Kusturica managed to do the same.


3. When Father Was Away on Business (1985)

When Father Was Away on Business (1985)

In 1985, Emir Kusturica returns to one of the most important and historical rich cities of the Balkans, Sarajevo. Influenced by a Dragoslav Mihailovic novel, which talks about an infamous concentration camp, and working again with Abdulah Sidran, Emir offers to the audience “an historical love film”, as he says himself at the very beginning of “When Father Was Away on Business”.

The Serbian filmmaker remains loyal to his principles and cultural values, developing one the best and most realistic traditional films ever made in Europe and perhaps worldwide.

This is a film where Emir Kusturica builds a portrait of the conflict between Stalin and Tito during the Cold War period, through the eyes of the 6-year-old Malik Malkoc. “When Father Was Away on Business” is colored by its use of traditional music and its themes regarding the true value of labor and family. These were the times when Stalin was a God, Tito was a prince and people were… poor.

With the break-up between Tito and Stalin, those who once deified the Soviet in Yugoslavia now become the ones who shout “Kill Stalin!” This was a situation that affected everyone, not only the politically active people, but even those who were uninvolved in politics. In those dangerous years of strict rationing, deprivation and conflict, we can see the importance with which people treated radio, football and alcohol. (Yugoslavians were champions at drinking.)

The Serbian director has the virtue never to put too much hatred in this story, which we see through the eyes of an innocent child who is a chronic sleepwalker. For Malik there are lots of more important questions than this political fait diver and, even for those who are not interested in the subject, the story told from a kid’s perspective can always be understood or, at the very least, accepted.

The second feature film by Kusturica shows us also the sensation of guilt one may feel without being even remotely connected to the communist political system. Mainly with the character of Mesa Zolj (Malik’s father), Emir Kusturica plays with our emotions and suddenly the concepts of right and wrong, fair and unfair, and innocent and guilty become clouded and uncertain.

In “When Father Was Away on Business”, humor and sorrow blend together, for this is a film that considers a very serious subject but always has some comedy in its core. We laugh at and with the characters, at the same time we feel pity for them because we know they are not really happy.

In this movie we also have some excellent performances by Predrag Manojlovic and Davor Dujmovic. Davor’s character, Brat Mirza, was the quiet and the most unnoticed role, but the wisest and the most interesting at the same time. It was a pity Emir didn’t explore this character a little more.

With this carnival film, we return to the roots of cinema by using a powerful sense of time and place in the story, a technique that was all too forgotten in the mid-eighties. Emir admits that in every film he takes a little bit of this family story to the movie, even if that little bit is purely fictitious.

On that basis, Kusturica can easily put the spectator inside the film, witnessing the first love of Malik at a time when politics are everywhere and cheating is a banal thing. We feel that we are really there, in the ‘50s, surrounded by a Balkan family as we watch a barber perform a circumcision on two little boys.

Kusturica has centered his attention on the family in order to create a certain mythology about this terrible era of cruelty, pain and poverty, and this enchanting method earned the Palm D’or for the Yugoslavian film.


4. Time of the Gypsies (1988)

Time of the Gypsies (1988)

Unlike his other films, which were based on Emir Kusturica’s life and origins, this is a movie about a subject that didn’t affect Emir directly. “Time of the Gypsies” tells the story of Perham, a poor Gypsy boy who is quite different than those around him.

Between his artful blend of genres and his story about a life of gambling, religion and superstition, Emir creates the same film he had made in “Do You Remember Dolly Bell” and “When Father Was Away on Business”, but with another story, another intention and a distinct meaning. The filmmaker joins humor with tragedy, luck and chance as he portrays multiple conflicts centered around God and the Gypsies, a poor people that were forgotten by God.

Davor Dujmovic, who was an amazing actor, plays the role of Perham, an honest Gypsy whose life is surrounded by crime, gambling and cheating. When the boy falls in love with Azra, he tries to marry her, but her mother firmly refuses the marriage proposal because Perham doesn’t have anything to offer: no money, no job and no future.

The Yugoslavian Gypsy community express their feelings very directly and speak straight from the heart, which creates some very funny moments over the course of the story. American movie stars are widely idolized and serve as the sign of these people’s dreams. Emir is a person that understands the relationship between sound and image, so he uses a large range of Gypsy music to energize the story and set the mood for an unfamiliar reality within a traditionally rich story.

The Gypsies are connected to many stereotypes that are not always truthful, and this film demystifies some of them. The traditional music is also responsible for the film’s frenetic rhythm, in other words, the film is so fluent and mordant, that seems to have three or four hours of runtime.

“Time of the Gypsies” has some similarities with “The Godfather”: at first Perham is against crime like Michael Corleone, but ends up being corrupted by the mafia system. In this arc, we can see the value of money, which doesn’t buy happiness but buys respect.

Once more, Kusturica tries to employ a contrasting point of view, showing a criminal and decadent environment through the eyes of an honest and uncorrupted individual. In “When Father Was Away on Business”, he creates the same effect with Malik. Another strength of the film is the amount of feelings that jump outside the screen.

Thanks to a great performance by Davor Dujmovic, we are able to feel the pain, the love, the sad goodbyes and the powerfully tragic fate. There’s also something Freudian about Perham in the way his dreams show the beauty of his mind, which is full of fears, desires and fantasies.

In the world of vagrancy, slavery, larceny and prostitution, there is endless swindling and trickery, which is very funny to watch and consider. The nudity, so typical of the European cinema, is very natural and innocent in pieces by Kusturica, ensuring the realism that is needed in this kind of film.

Breasts are not always an erotic and pornographic object, they can simply be part of reality or, within the right perspective, art. In a story of redemption, the Serbian director shows us how funny it can be when we become what we most despise. “Time of the Gypsies” is a burlesque comedy-drama, based not in a Greek, but a Gypsy tragedy.


5. Arizona Dream (1992)

Arizona Dream.

When “Arizona Dream” was released, the reviews were like the movie itself: bittersweet. While the film was not well received in the US, in Europe (especially in France) it became a cult film, one of those that does not appeal to everyone.

Even on American soil, Emir Kusturica continued to have his own peculiar vision of the world, and his artistic touch, which did not rely on tired cinematographic formulas, was strange to some American critics, who were not used to this kind of cinema. Truth be told, this is one of the most complex, artistic, surrealist and abstract films ever made by Emir Kusturica and, therefore, one the most underrated movies of his filmography.

In Emir Kusturica’s fourth feature film, everything can have a second meaning, but the one central concept remains: “What is life?” The cast is great, starring with Jerry Lewis, Faye Dunaway, Lili Taylor, and, above all, Johnny Depp and Vincent Gallo, who are perfectly-suited to the script’s demands.

Vincent Gallo offers a colossal performance as Paul Leger, an expert in cinema who provides many good laughs during the movie, but it’s impossible to overshadow Johnny Depp as the big star here.

We all know Depp is capable of an amazing metamorphosis into a role, but most people did not foresee that he would fit so well into Kusturica’s metaphoric vision of the world. Seeing Depp starring in truly artistic cinema is a pleasure to the eyes, and, with such a strong character in “Arizona Dream,” he really shows his talent and versatility, even imitating a chicken in a must-see scene that was, in fact, improvised.

Kusturica builds an existentialist poem and it’s really amazing how, time after time, he can always transmit strong emotions to the audience. The feeling of being alone among lots of people, that sense of being just a small point in the infinite universe and the uncertainty of what the future holds for us… All this is in “Arizona Dream” on a subliminal level.

If we compare the sad figure of Axel in the start of the movie to his persona when he smokes three cigars at the same time, we understand that life is a little like that: just a series of very different moments. This is why there is something truly remarkable and special that invigorates Emir’s story.

The filmmaker asks some questions about men’s weaknesses, the fear of dying, what happens after death, the pain of being alone, etc. The answers are offered philosophically through a “men vs. fish” comparison.

In his line of reasoning, Axel states that, usually, people say fish are stupid, but they are wise because they know how to be quiet and don’t need to analyze and think about everything. He goes on to argue that humans are stupid because we think too much but still don’t have a clue about what are we doing in life.

The movie shows this ridiculous face of the human being: the insecurities, the vanity and the desire to present something fake and superficial. There’s a fish that appears many times throughout the film, swimming in the air, and that image of the fish flying is the metaphor that Emir Kusturica uses to complete his “meaning of life piece of art.”

People are like fishes, they are just travelling aimlessly, trying to find a good reason to swim, but they don’t really know what they’re looking for. Axel thinks people all wish they could be “flying in love”, instead of falling. But, according to Kusturica, “life is all dreams.” If that’s true, then this film, too, is a mere dream.