San Sebastian review: On the Milky Road (Emir Kusturica)

The story of On the Milky Road brings us back to the Yugoslav Wars in the mid-nineties – i.e. more or less the time around which Kusturica’s artistic inspiration started to decline. His last picture of real significance has been Black Cat, White Cat in 1998, and maybe by going back to this era on screen Kusturica hopes to reconnect with the moviemaker he was then. Kusturica cast no other than himself as Kosta, the hero of On the Milky Road, a milkman who makes his deliveries by crossing the front line back and forth. A love triangle takes form around him when his neighbour Milena brings an Italian woman (played by Monica Bellucci) out of a refugee camp to be the bride of her brother. Milena loves Kosta, but Kosta falls in love with the soon-to-be bride… and both this tale and its characters fail to win us over in the long run. Kusturica is unable to give substance to them, making it difficult for us to care, to find it compelling.

Such cracks in the narrative and emotional structure of a movie rarely get better along the way; here they lead to a final act on the verge of disaster, where for no convincing reason Kusturica ditches his whole story, and swaps it for an inconsistent and near incoherent manhunt. For example, at some point, coming out of nowhere, we see three small falcons setting off a storm with their wings, which kicks the bad guys down the top of a cliff. It is neither convincing nor enchanting. However, the Serbian director proves on more than one occasion during the film that he is still capable to work wonders, and to create perfect bits of cinema. It can take the form of a vision (bodies burnt alive so badly that they look like wax statues), or of a line of dialog (“My beauty has been my burden, just like your kindness. It brings out the worst in people”). Most of Kusturica’s achievements in On the Milky Road are the result of a passionate and truly gifted use of cinema techniques, or genres, that turn filming and editing into a way to choreograph anything, any scene, any action.

Kusturica makes movie wizardry with slapstick comedy in the style of Jacques Tati or Buster Keaton, vibrantly dancing around a live music band, even from chains of events triggered by the deliberate actions of farm animals – whose plans obviously cannot be put into words, but are possible to express in a crystal clear way through editing. As it happens, the humanity that can be found in animals (more than in humans), and the connections between animals and humans, are the two themes that do work in On the Milky Road. It is on such a chain of events dictated by animals that the film opens, with a bang; at the other end it closes without any dialog as well, but this time in a devastating fashion. Using solely what cinema provides (framing, editing, pacing with the musical arrangement), the epilogue composed by Kusturica makes us cry our eyes out even though it comes right after the awful half-hour of the manhunt. We almost forget this part of the movie ever happened, which proves that not all is lost in Kusturica’s filmmaking. This last sequence might just be one of the most moving we saw this year.

On the Milky Road (Emir Kusturica)