He's an artistic genius, but a political rebel. Serbian filmmaker Emir Kusturica is back after nine years and is hoping for a Gold Lion in Venice. Are his films good in spite of or because of his mistakes?
Emir Kusturica's first feature film, "Do You Remember Dolly Bell?," received the Golden Lion from the Venice Film Festival in 1981. He later won the Palme d'Or in Cannes twice and a Silver Bear in Berlin.
Now the 61-year-old director of internationally acclaimed films such as "Time of Gypsies" and "Underground" is back with a new film after nine years of absence: "On the Milky Road" is competing in Venice, premiering on September 9.
Monica Bellucci will co-star with Kusturica himself, who also wrote the script and directed the movie.
Controversial in his home country
His latest work wasn't selected for the competition in Cannes - a rejection that was celebrated by some in his hometown Sarajevo. Within Bosnia's cultural circles, many deny Kusturica's talent, as he is also a politically controversial figure.
Some Bosnian Muslims see him as a traitor who forgot his hometown and his neighbors when multiethnic Yugoslavia began to break down. He is perceived as an opportunist who made a deal with the Serbian warlord Slobodan Milosevic, allowing him to work undisturbed on his masterpiece, "Underground."
However, Kusturica did not remain completely silent during that period. When the Bosnian-Serb troops besieged his hometown, he told broadcaster TV Sarajevo from Paris, "I am taking this opportunity to call upon Mr. Karadzic to use his authority to stop those wretched and lousy people from throwing grenades on my city."
The appeal was useless, as Radovan Karadzic turned out to be the one leading and commanding those "wretched and lousy people."
Kusturica and the powerful
Bosnian Muslims also believed that Kusturica belonged to those "wretched and lousy" ones.
Even though his family was officially Muslim, his father was a partisan and diehard communist who would only allow one god in the house: Yugoslavian leader Tito.
The filmmaker aimed to provoke even in his earliest films. In "When Father Was Away on Business" (1985), he explored the period of rupture with the Soviet Union, when alleged Stalinists ended up in labor camps in Yugoslavia overnight.
Pained by the social collapse, the filmmaker said on multiple occasions, "Muslims, Serbs and Croats have defeated us citizens."
Kusturica has claimed he left Sarajevo because then Bosnian president Alija Izetbegovic wanted to instrumentalize him as his poster child. "I could have been the national hero of the area where I was born," he said.
He found black-and-white depictions of Milosevic defining him as "a fascist and a rogue" too simplistic: "It's not that I had a positive opinion of Milosevic, but I negatively viewed the strong and powerful who could do whatever they wanted with the little people."
He's never kept secret that he naively viewed Milosevic as a revolutionary and even thought of getting his portrait tattooed on his shoulder.
Baptism contributed to the myth
According to the author Muharem Bardulj, Kusturica has always been true to his guiding principle of defiance, even when it meant making mistakes - although Kusturica would rather describe these mistakes as part of a personal journey.
Kusturica and Maradona are buddies
In 2005, Kusturica decided to get baptized as a Christian Orthodox. It made him a myth in his adopted country, Serbia. "It is not easy to decide to be something else as what people expect from you," he once said. A part of the Serbian public opinion nevertheless criticized him for not being a Serb, but a certified pro-Serb nationalist.
Of course the Orthodox Church sees this differently. The Serbian and the Russian Patriarchs have honored him. His fiery speeches against the independence of Kosovo probably contributed to this as well. He claims the former Serbian southern province of Kosovo has been manipulated by the US.
It is often difficult to precisely decipher the content hiding in his strong rhetoric approach. What Kusturica calls "Alterglobalism" comes down to blanket criticism of everything that somehow belongs to the West: multinational corporations, Hollywood, and above all US politics with the "educational bombs" paving the way for more McDonald's worldwide.
He's proud to be a friend of Hugo Chavez and Diego Maradona, whom he portrayed in the documentary "Maradona by Kusturica" (2008). "My freedom is in Maradona's style: I do what I want," Kusturica once said of his friend.
Some of his acquaintances are certainly more pragmatic than ideological. After the fall of Milosevic in 2000, he snuggled with the different leaders ruling in Belgrade, who were all happy to be seen in the company of this internationally renowned artist and showered him with funds for his projects.
That's how he could build his coastal village, Drvengrad, on a mountain in southwestern Serbia. It was initially only planned as a location for his film "Life is a Miracle." Now it includes houses, restaurants, an Orthodox church, a cinema, a heliport and ski slopes. A ticket allows visitors to even meet the ruler of the village himself - Kusturica's house with swimming pool is also there.
Johnny Depp and Fay Dunaway in "Arizona Dream"
Behind the unwashed hair of a cinema genius are plenty of thoughts about his own bank account, jeer critics. However, many of his countrymen are enthusiastic about the facility. The surrounding natural park area is full of visitors. Kusturica even served as its director - until he was accused of embezzlement.
Joints with Johnny Depp
Kusturica's agenda is never short on parties with celebrities in Drvengrad. Three years ago, the filmmaker beat up a hologram of actor Bruce Willis - a visual symbol of art cinema's victory over Hollywood. In 2003, Willis put a million-dollar bounty on Saddam Hussein's head, which Kusturica didn't like at all.
Johnny Depp, on the other hand, is Kusturica's kind of guy. Long before Depp became the most famous pirate of the Caribbean, the two worked together. The result, in 1993, was "Arizona Dream," a caricature of the American dream co-starring Jerry Lewis and Faye Dunaway.
"He is my brother and my inspiration," said Depp when he visited Drvengrad. In his autobiography, Kusturica recalls drunk, high nights with the actor.
As for his work, Kusturica, wants his films, texts and music to speak for themselves. He wouldn't have anything against another Golden Lion for his showcase.