By Indiewire | Indiewire May 17, 2004 at 2:00AM
Kusturica's "Life is a Miracle"; From Crazy to Tragic and Back Again
by Peter Brunette
A friend once said that watching a film by Yugoslavian director Emir Kusturica -- I know that "Yugoslavian" as an ethnic marker is tragically out-of-date, but Kusturica, a Bosnian Muslim by birth, has always remained committed in principle at least to the idea of a united Yugoslavia -- is like being at a party at 2 a.m., and everybody else is drunk except you. Actually, that bon mot applies to all too many films from Eastern Europe, including Russia, and so the fault can't be laid entirely at Kusturica's doorstep.
Nevertheless, the madcap director seems to really outdo himself, and the entire inglorious tradition, with his new film, "Zivot je Cudo" (Life is a Miracle), which is more strenuously zany than ever before. Somewhere buried in all the surrealism and craziness is an anti-war film, I think, but the lunacy, sometimes inspired, sometimes not, tends to keep it pretty well hidden. The title is an obvious, bitter reference to Roberto Benigni's international favorite "Life Is Beautiful," and perfectly encapsulates Kusturica's deep pessimism about the human race. Where Benigni found affirmation in war, Kusturica merely finds further proof of how screwed up things, and people, really are.
The tale is set in Bosnia, in 1992, right before the beginning of the war. It centers on Luka (Slavko Stimac), an engineer who has come to the boondocks from Belgrade to build a railroad tunnel designed to attract countless new tourist dollars to the region. His opera-singing wife Jadranka (Vesna Trivalic) and teenage son Milos (Vuk Kostic) accompany him, but Jadranka soon runs off with an itinerant Hungarian musician and Milos is drafted into the Serbian army. No one, of course, believes that war is really a possibility, as no one ever does, and when it comes, their artificial construct of a world comes crashing down. During the hostilities, Luka is entrusted with a lovely Muslim hostage, Sabaha (Natasa Solak), who is to be exchanged for his son Milos, who's been captured. Things become emotionally impossible for Luka when he begins to fall in love with Sabaha, and the film's tone moves from crazy to tragic and crazy.
This description just outlined can give the false impression that these are real people we're dealing with, but in a Kusturica film the characters are rarely little more than caricatures, who have pratfalls and walk off cliffs and generally act dumb. This puts the Yugoslav director at the opposite pole from a master like the Frenchman Jean Renoir ("Rules of the Game," "The Grand Illusion"), who so obviously revels in the humanity of his characters, even the bad or foolish ones. This is, of course, not necessarily a fault on Kusturica's part, especially since it's quite conscious. It's rather a certain kind of filmmaking that will be, quite simply, to one's taste or not. Realism, thank god, is not the only method available to the cinema.
Weirdly, in this film, it is the surrealistic scenes, which predominate in the first third, that are by far the most interesting. Bears invade the sleepy little town, the postman delivers the mail by hand-propelled railroad car, cats and dogs fight colorfully, and people cavort drunkenly, all in the visible presence of Kusturica's famous gypsy techno-pop No Smoking Orchestra. In short, it's the kind of a movie in which people never finish a drink without throwing their glass to the floor. Visual and aural jokes arrive and assault the viewer every few seconds and when you allow yourself to go with the flow, you see how well-mounted the gags are and realize that if you were drunk, you'd be having a lot of fun. Ironically, it's when Luka and Sabaha fall in love, thus becoming tragic pawns in the larger political struggle, that the film loses much of its interest. It's as though when Kusturica begins to take things more seriously, he also begins to falter.
Still, it's a powerful and expertly put together example of a certain kind of cinema. It just may no longer interest viewers in a time when reality has become more surrealist than a mere film could ever be.