Do You Remember Dolly Bell?
English Title: Do You Remember Dolly Bell?
Original Title: Sjećaš li se Doli Bel?
Country of Origin: Yugoslavia
Studio: C.F.S. Kosutnjak, Jadran Film, Sutjeska Film, TV Sarajevo
Director: Emir Kusturica
Editor: Senija Tičić
Runtime: 110 minutes
Volume: East European
Sarajevo, the early 1960s: adolescent Dino lives with his family and is facing the most turbulent summer of his life. At the local community centre, Dino and his delinquent friends are enthralled by the foreign movies and music played there. As a means of combating petty crime, the community leaders start up a local youth band with the gang earmarked to play in it. His communist father regularly chastises him and his older brother for the way they live their lives, with Dino’s fascination for hypnotism and self-help being particularly ridiculed. After local pimp Sonny pressures Dino into taking in the prostitute Dolly Bell, his relationship with the girl blossoms and his interest in the band grows. Furthermore, Dino has to come to terms with the likelihood that the illness his father has developed is terminal, thereby forcing him to re-evaluate his relationships and priorities.
Emir Kusturica’s feature debut is a captivating coming-of-age tale with a semi-autobiographical screenplay by his occasional collaborator, Abdulah Sidran, that went on to win the Golden Lion for Best First Feature at the Venice Film Festival in 1981. Set over one summer in the early 1960s, the loosely structured narrative focuses on the changing fortunes of Dino, a smart and spirited teenager on the cusp of adulthood, who lives with his large family in a cramped and run-down apartment overlooking a new state built housing scheme; an early indicator of the theme of transition, both personal, political and cultural, that runs through the film. Drawing on Sidran’s screenplay and his own memories of childhood, Kusturica weaves a beguiling tale that displays many of the themes, symbols and stylistic traits that came to mark him out as such a unique talent. Issues surrounding family life, politics, religion and relationships have all played a recurring part in Kusturica’s films, and they are all present and correct here. His recurrent visual portrayals of feasts, music and musicianship, and man’s relationship with animals and nature is also very much in evidence. Eschewing an overarching plot, the film unfolds as a series of vignettes showing a family and a country in flux, and a young man facing up to encroaching adulthood. Dino’s invitation to join a newly formed youth band at the community centre, his father’s deteriorating health and his relationship with a young prostitute all have a deep impact on the teenager; and what could have felt like slushy sentimentality or a collection of clichés is handled in a genuinely tender fashion.
The portrayal of family life is less frenetic than in many of Kusturica’s later films, and an air of affectionate nostalgia hangs over Dolly Bell, albeit one shot through with pathos and black comedy. Mirroring the community centre meetings viewed intermittently throughout the film, the family’s life is structured and set out around similar meetings called by their father, a good hearted but obstinate man who has renounced his Muslim faith and adopted communism. The feelings conjured up are both intimately personal and redolent of universal themes. Family hierarchies, sibling rivalry, generational divides and moments of gentle humour both help to bond and put strains on Dino’s home life. The bumbling figure of Dino’s father, and his apparent displeasure at his son’s fascination for auto-suggestive experiments and hypnosis, symbolizes the growing cultural changes of the period both in the former Yugoslavia and in Western Europe in general, where issues surrounding faith, politics, youth cultures, ideologies and freedom of expression were prevalent at the time. The oft repeated mantra ‘every day in every way, I'm getting a little better’ that Dino has gleaned from the self-help books he reads perfectly expresses his growing but tentative inner belief and self-confidence.
The relationship between Dino and his father, at once fractious and loving, forms a central part of the film, as does the introduction of Dolly Bell, a prostitute hoisted on him by a local pimp. Sharing the same name as the seductive club singer Dino sees in Alessandro Blasetti's movie Europa di Notte/Europe by Night (1959), she comes to symbolize his transition from boyhood into manhood. Put up in the family’s shed, Dolly Bell entrances Dino, and as their unlikely relationship blossoms she helps to ‘make a man of him.’ Their sexual dalliances have just the right feel of tenderness, adolescent awkwardness and humour; and Dolly Bell (as with all the main characters) feels fully fleshed out; sensual, playful, flawed and contradictory, she is at once a fantasy figure for Dino and an all too human distraction.
Kusturica’s unfussy direction allows the film’s key events to play out with a naturalistic feel; less guided by editing and plot devices and more by a gradual layering of key events that shape the future for Dino, his family and his friends. The eventual death of his father from a terminal illness is the crucial event that drags Dino from childhood into adulthood, the seemingly diametrically opposed characters tenderly exposed as being united by a deep familial love. The film ends in a low key but ultimately optimistic fashion as summer passes into autumn, with the band playing at the community centre and the family who are still mourning their loss eventually moving into the long promised new apartment. As Dino repeats his mantra in a voice-over, the viewer is left with the image of a young man with a new found sense of responsibility and altered priorities. And it’s to Kusturica's credit that he allows it to play out in such an understated fashion.
Author of this review: Neil Mitchell