Monday, May 02, 2005


Film Review: 'Life Is A Miracle'

This post contains a fairly extensive film review. There may well be spoilers contained within it. If you are considering watching 'Life Is A Miracle', let me simply advise you to do so. It's definitely worth it.

When I saw that 'Life Is A Miracle' was on at a cinema up the road from where I live, I was utterly delighted, not becuase I knew a huge amount about the film, but simply because I had heard that it was worth seeing and had thought I'd missed it.

To briefly outline the plot: Luka is a man who has been employed to help in the construction of a rural railroad which is being built in order to attract tourism to the area (the Bosnian/Serbian border). He moves his family there - his family consisting of his son, Milos, a promising young football talent, and his dust-allergic, opera-singing wife Jadranka. The first segment of the film deals with the construction of the railroad, and the highs and lows of Milos's brief footballing career. The second section of the film occurs as Luka meets Sabaha, an attractive young Muslim from Bosnia, who arrives shortly after the departures of his wife and son. It eventually transpires that Luka will have to choose between his love for his family and his love for Sabaha.

The film is, in the most wonderful sense, an absolute delight. I could barely stop smiling all the way through. The film attacks every emotion and sense, and somehow brings them all to life. In many of the best films, we see small diversions away from the main story, that have little to do with the basic plot, but are delightful embellishments - witness here, for example, a magnificently chaotic bear hunt, with some of the films typically marvellous music accompanying it, or the suicidal mule, or any other wonderful, if slightly bizarre, diversions and distractions. I tapped my feet to the music, guffawed at the comedy, and generally had the best time I've had in a cinema since 'Oldboy.'

I was an Emir Kusturica novice going into this film, but I certainly hope not to be for much longer. Kusturica seems a real master of physical comedy - the football match scene, involving Jadranka singing opera on the sidelines, before a brawl in the goal, is genuinely hilarious, and so is the face-to-face meeting, and subsequent fight, between Jadranka and Sabaha, in which the former ends up wearing a portrait of herself around her neck, sort of like a ruff.

I know that for some Kusturica is a problematic director. I can't comment on his earlier work, having not seen it, but I'm well aware that, in particular, 'Underground' is considered to be rather too similar in tone to the propoganda of Slobodan Milosevic for comfort. It is certainly true that he defended Milosevic in some interviews early in his career. I'm not going to condone that, obviously, but how many people in this country can criticise? If you cast your mind back a few years, a substantial portion of Britain's media, most notably The Guardian, were rather obviously fellow-travellers of Serbian nationalisms early years.

Kusturica's subsequent film after 'Underground', 'Black Cat, White Cat' got around the problem by simply not referring to the war at all, and is apparently somewhat the better for it. It's this film of his that I'm most looking forward to seeing next. In 'Life Is A Miracle,' Kusturica potentially opens a can of worms for himself by returning to the war as a theme, but at no point does the work seem particularly jingoistic or tubthumping. Milos is called to service; his family do not wish to see him go. Some of his friends are in the Serbian army, but Sabaha is a Bosnian Muslim, and she is quickly befriended by many of the soldiers, due to an important skill she has (I'm not going to give it away, but it's nothing rude). All in all, the war is seen only as a tiresome and saddening event organised by politicos far away, that simply sweeps all before it.

At the end of the day, and with my final judgement withheld for the reasons above, I suspect that the following is probably closest to the truth (found via the Bosnian Institute, no less):

"Kusturica commentators have plenty to chew on and the debate over his career - and especially Podzemlje [Underground] - is far from finished. To my mind, Kusturica is likely to be written into the history books as a politically naive film-maker who has chosen his company foolishly, rather than being an ardent nationalist, and as a man whose ego outstrips his understanding of his actions."

This, I suspect, is probably pretty accurate - consider the comment about his ego in response to the article linked below.

To sum up: I really can't recommend 'Life Is A Miracle' highly enough. Yes, it does have a couple of flaws - an awful lot goes on, and Luka's obvious love for his son just tinges his realtionship with Sabaha with a faintly unrealistic edge, but who cares? It is wonderful for all reasons I listed earlier, and perhaps most importantly, despite the problems the characters face, and the damage that the war brings, as the title suggests, there is always hope, and Kusturica shows that better than most in this film.

A genuine delight.

[Interesting further reading on the film, and on censorship.]

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