Animal crackers enliven Emir Kusturica’s assaultively rambunctious On the Milky Road (Na mlijecnom putu), the Serbian writer-director’s return to fictional features after a nine-year gap. A tonally haphazard, occasionally tiresome romantic extravaganza set against the horribly violent backdrop of civil wars in the former Yugoslavia, the film delivers the familiar Kusturica combination of Balkan exuberance, percussively infectious music, grand emotions, sudden bloodshed and knockabout comedy. And while the presence of top-billed Monica Bellucci will provide a much-needed boost in terms of international appeal, the days of Kusturica as an arthouse box-office name are but a faded memory.
It’s been 21 years since Underground elevated Kusturica to the exclusive ranks of two-time Palme d’Or winners, but his status — especially among critics — has been in a generally parlous state during the current century. He competed at Cannes with the much-reviled pair Life Is A Miracle (2004) and Promise Me This (2007), but enjoyed greater visibility via his 2008 documentary Maradona By Kusturica. In the interim, while working on this long-gestating project, he’s been mainly renowned for his larger-than-life public persona and controversy-stoking political pronouncements, such as his unfashionably glowing comments about Russian supremo Vladimir Putin. Indeed, since Black Cat, White Cat took runner-up honors at Venice in 1998, the broad-browed and imposingly bear-like Kusturica has been more celebrated for his acting work in other directors’ films, such as Christian Carion’s Cold War drama Farewell.
Too much is not enough.
He casts himself as lead for the first time here, building his script four-square around tragedy-haunted, musically-talented Kosta. Well-built sexagenarian Kusturica appears occasionally topless, a la Putin, and despite being a genial, rather gently-spoken chap the shaggy-haired cimbalom player Kosta proves quite the lover and the fighter when required. Working as a milk-deliverer in a remote village periodically touched by the raging Balkan conflict, he is the target of ardent amorous affection from vivacious local lass Milena (Sloboa Micalovic). Milena plans to marry him on the same day that her war-hero brother gets hitched to a mysterious Serbian-Italian beauty (Bellucci), the latter rescued/kidnapped from a Displaced Persons’ Center.
Bellucci’s character, never named and identified in the credits only as as The Bride, also falls headlong for our humble hero soon after meeting him — the pair getting up close and personal when Kosta’s ear is severed by a sniper’s bullet, and The Bride sews up the resulting wound. But when the big day duly arrives, events take a scorchingly apocalyptic turn thanks to the arrival of murderous special forces dispatched by The Bride’s ex, a British army general bent on revenge. It’s at this point that On the Milky Road wanders increasingly into realms of magical realism, with Kosta’s animal familiars, including his faithful pet hawk and a milk-loving snake popping up and helping out at crucial junctures.
Fleeing certain death, the Bride and Kosta take on the contours of the figures from folklore: epic, tragic, consumed by the grandest of passions; framed against the spectacular backdrop of verdantly hills and valleys countryside via cinematographer Goran Volaric’s bright widescreen images. “Excess all areas” is, as often before, Kusturica’s mantra. He particularly revels in the village’s boozily chaotic get-togethers, and latter set-pieces such as a pyrotechnic climax involving a flock of sheep, a newborn lamb, a minefield, mute mercenaries and a concatenation of digitally-enhanced explosions. A ten-minute coda set 15 years later wraps up proceedings on a religiose and sentimental note with Kosta now a man of God under the auspices of the Orthodox church — his proto-saintly status emphasized when he casually extracts a thorn from the paw of a large and friendly brown bear. Androcles meets Francis of Assisi!
No one enters the universe of Kusturica these days seriously expecting humility, restraint or even nuance, of course, and complaining that On the Milky Road is noisily over-the-top should be filed alongside moans about water being wet. Under such cacophonous circumstances Bellucci copes admirably well, not least in the matter of speaking the bulk of her dialog in charming, lightly-accented Serbian (her character has only lately learned the lingo). The legendary screen beauty and recent Bond woman somehow keeps her dignity intact throughout, whether she’s dodging bullets under water at the bottom of a well or rolling around a muddy minefield in the digital coils of a palpably CGI serpent.
Production companies: Pinball London, BN Films, Rasta International
Cast: Emir Kusturica, Monica Bellucci, Sloboda Micalovic, Predrag Manojlovic
Director / Screenwriter: Emir Kusturica
Producers: Paula Vaccaro, Alex Garcia, Lucas Akoskin, Emir Kusturica
Cinematographer: Goran Volarevic
Production designer: Goran Joksimovic
Costume designer: Nebojsa Lipanovic
Editor: Svetolik Mica Zajc
Composer: Stribor Kusturica
Casting: Slobodan Dedeic
Sales: Wild Bunch Paris
No Rating, 125 minutes