Emir Kusturica enters the race for the Golden Lion with On the Milky Road, a bonkers Balkan wartime romance that, with its full fat, double cream richness, may be too much for many. That said, the first half-hour features some exhilarating filmmaking and there are moments of pure joy mixed in with the feathers, the eggs, the bullets and the spilt milk. We land in the midst of the Bosnian-Serbian conflict. The trenches are close to one another as ceasefires are broken, bombs fly, machineguns rattle and a peregrine falcon flies over the battle lines as a gaggle of geese take a morning dip in a tub of pig’s blood.
It’s revealed to be a dream of local milkman Kosta (Kusturica), but the reality is just as, if not more, surreal. Kosta plays music to his jiving buddy, the peregrine falcon, and moves under gunfire through the lines to pick up the milk from a local farm. The farm has a crazy clock that ‘bites’ anyone who tries to adjust its madcap rush and a similarly crazed former gymnast Milena (Sloboda Mićalović), who has a crush on Kosta. A marriage has been arranged for Milena’s cycloptic brother and war hero Žaga (Predrag Manojlović) and an Italian refugee, played by a zestful Monica Bellucci in one of her best peformances in years. Why Bellucci would be a refugee who has fled to a warzone rather than from one is one of the many improbabilities that brush shoulders with the outright impossibilities.
Kosta immediately falls in love with the milking maiden and though he is due to marry Milena – the same day as Žaga claims his bride – the Italian’s ex-boyfriend, a murderous English General, has also sent out emissaries in the form of a trio of black clad commandos to kill all-comers and seize the woman. The autumnal romance bobs along the surface of the more boisterous and seriously felt comedy to the gypsy orchestra music of the director’s son Stribor, which pumps away lustily without ever providing the knockdown brilliance and tragi-comic melancholy of Goran Bregović’s score for Kusturica’s 1995 masterpiece Underground.
The magical realism begins to lose its lustre after the hour mark as the movie kills off most of its characters, abandons the village and off-roads with its two stars into the Serbian countryside pursued by the commandos. As the lovers kiss, the barn they’ve taken refuge in falls to pieces and that feels like an apt symbol for the film itself. Kusturica is obviously besotted by Bellucci and one suspects the extended runtime might have something to do with the director wanting to simply spend more time with his co-star. As handsome as Goran Volarevic’s cinematography is, by the closing half-hour and an unnecessary coda, the viewer might be left wondering if this milky tale couldn’t have been skimmed.