It’s 1991 and Bosnia-Herzegovina is on the brink of war when curmudgeonly Divko (Miki Manojlović) returns home from a 20-year exile in Germany to reclaim his home, his estranged 20-year-old son Martin (Boris Ler), and his country before it crumbles away. He comes armed with a younger fiancée, a lucky black cat that he treats as if it were a baby, and lots of cash—which is enough to throw family and town into disarray in ways that mirror the disintegration of Yugoslavia itself. In a moment of crisis, when some wise old men are thinking, “Nothing good will come of this,” Divko’s cash-as-panacea attitude seems to confirm their worries. He kicks his ex-wife from her home, buys the hair salon where she works, and makes the entire town look for his pussycat when it goes missing, everyone hungry for the reward.
While there are echoes of the gloomy alienation of Béla Tarr’s Damnation (most evident in Martin’s yearning to escape to America with his makeshift radio antenna), Cirkus Columbia mostly leans on idiosyncratic and dry political humor reminiscent of Elia Suleiman’s Palestine-Israel inside jokes in The Time That Remains, and that can sometimes feel inaccessible to the uninitiated to all things Bosnian. The film can feel deceivingly soap-opera-ish at times, but its lightheartedness and overtly traditional narrative structure become a smart strategy for crafting what is ultimately a very nuanced political critique of capital.
Any critique of economic systems will, of course, unsettle systems of kinship as well. We see this in the perfectly Oedipal relationship between Martin and his doting mother (she makes him pancakes when he complains about dinner, then asks him for a kiss on the cheek) and when he loses his virginity to his new stepmom, barely respecting the incest taboo, and proving his father’s motto, that “blood isn’t water,” in some ironic ways. Director Danis Tanovic has also crafted one of the sweetest final scenes in cinema, which involves an impromptu carousel ride and old lovers who reunite (with each other, with their missing cat, and with their collapsing country), with a city in flames in the distance.