What would it be like to watch an Emir Kusturica film with the sound off? It would certainly allow for greater appreciation of the visuals, which in “On the Milky Road” are often rather beautiful. The problem – well, one of the problems – is that just when you want to admire the mountain terrain, or ruminate on the snowy whiteness of a flock of geese, you’re assaulted by crushingly loud pig screams, gun fire, helicopter whirrs, mine explosions, and, of course orchestrations at full blast. It’s what his die-hard fans expect, though everyone else might be running for the hills. Set during the Bosnian War and telling the fairy-tale-ish love story between a Serbian milkman (played by the director) and his Italian-Serbian object of desire (Monica Bellucci), “Milky” reinforces Kusturica’s leap from magical realism into the territory of exaggerated phoniness.
Introductory text announces that the film is “based on three true stories and many fantasies,” while the inspiration, per the director, comes from his short “Our Life” in the omnibus film “Words With God.” In truth the only noticeable connection to that earlier work comes in the last five minutes of “Milky Road,” though it would be a stretch to say that the previous two hours make greater sense of the short. What most distinguishes Kusturica’s latest (apart from the decibel level) is the disconnectedness of it all. Perhaps it’s meant to be metaphor, or poetic flights of fancy. Yet when such profligate imaginings make sense only in the director’s head, what’s left is a clock that attacks, a milk-drinking snake, a gymnast of exaggerated skill, and a lot of exploding sheep.
Animals figure heavily here, reinforcing the animalistic nature of humans – especially in a Kusturica film. So when pig slaughterers dump buckets of blood into a bathtub, no one should be surprised that a flock of geese take a literal blood bath. Like many images here, it’s startling, though it’s hard to tell if it’s really meant as a commentary on the bloodbath that was the Bosnian War, since all the shooting back and forth on screen is far less visceral than what goes on in that tub.
Kosta (Kusturica) delivers milk in the war zone, somehow managing to avoid frequent hails of bullets; perhaps his peregrine falcon protects him, though not from the amorous attentions of former Yugoslav champion gymnast and “Flashdance” devotee Milena (Sloboda Mićalović). When a marriage broker picks out the Bride (Bellucci) for Milena’s brother, returning war bigwig Žaga Bojović (Predrag Manojlović), it looks like a double wedding is in the cards, but then Kosta sees her, and is smitten.
The Bride is never accorded a name, or a convincing backstory: She’s half Italian, half Serbian, and has come from Krajina, the self-proclaimed Serbian republic along the Croatian border (many from the region will want to read a political, anti-Croatian message in this plot detail). She’s also the ex-girlfriend of an English general who killed his wife on her account; he’s been in prison, but unknown to the Bride, is about to come out. Meanwhile, she milks the cows, makes dinner, fetches water from the well – in other words, she’s the perfect woman, plus she’s Monica Bellucci. Ceasefires come and go, the joint wedding is about to take place, and then the general’s commandos come and ruin everything.
The remainder of the film – another 45 minutes – sees Kosta and the Bride flee into the wilds of nature, trying to stay one step ahead of the commandos. They have a brief idyllic spell in a “Gilligan’s Island” style hut, but must again escape in a manner increasingly outside reality. One of the ways you know this is a Kusturica film is because whenever he puts his characters into impossible situations, he invents an even more impossible escape, like a 6-year-old devising the story. Other signature moments are the blaring musical interludes that quickly end any serious lull, as well as the repetitive nature of the most annoying devices, such as a hopping, squawking hen, and the director’s long-established fondness for characters that defy gravity.
Location work is the main payoff here, with genuinely arresting landscape shots, especially at the start, when editing weaves in literal bird’s-eye views that soar above the gunfire and mountains. Also notable is the final sequence, harking back to “Our Life.” Such images impart far more pleasure than the overused CGI snub-nosed adder.