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Zivot je cudo (2004)

Life Is a Miracle, Hungry Heart, Kad je zivot bio cudo, Vie est un miracle!

Rating: 6/10

Running Time: 154 minutes

UK Certificate: 15

It is 1992. Luka (Slavko Stimac) is a rail engineer building a network of bridges and tunnels that will open up a small Bosnian border village to tourism from Serbia. His wife Jadranka (Vesna Trivalic) is a neurasthenic opera singer, and his son Milos (Vuk Kostic) is a talented footballer on the point of going professional. Despite an invasion of bears, the conscription of Milos into the army, a near riot on the football pitch and the assassination of the town mayor, Luka refuses to believe that war can be coming. When it does, Jadranka runs off with a Hungarian cymbal player (Dr Nelle Karajlic), Milos is taken hostage by the enemy, and Luka is asked to guard a young Muslim captive named Sabaha (Natasa Solak) until she can be exchanged for Milos. Soon Luka and Sabaha have become lovers – but all is not fair in love and war.

Like Federico Fellini and Alejandro Jodorowsky, writer/director Emir Kusturica likes to depict life in the extravagant colours of magical realism, where the carnivalesque, the allegorical and the downright insane merge into cinema's equivalent of mambo.

Even if they are not so easily categorized, big, brassy films like 'The Time of the Gypsies', 'Underground' and 'Black Cat, White Cat' are instantly recognisable as Kusturica's own, and it is always on the broadest possible canvas that their domestic tales unfold. Similarly 'Life is a Miracle' may focus on a small family in a small village, but just like the intricate railway model built to scale in Luka's upstairs room, Kusturica uses village life as a microcosm for much larger national, and even international, events. Of course the 'Romeo and Juliet' plotting, and some explicit references to other Shakespearean works, serve to universalise the film all the more.

Kusturica certainly presents a different perspective on the Bosnian War from the one which played out across our television sets. Sure, there are occasional references to the war's atrocities and summary executions, and in clear allusion to the profiteering corruption of Bosnia's political class, the village's grotesque new mayor Filopovic (Nikola Kojo) is seen, surrounded by whores, snorting cocaine from the railtracks which he has appropriated for his lucrative smuggling operations. Yet Kusturica is far more interested in showing the disruptive impact of war on ordinary, decent people like Luka and Sabaha, as well as on essentially honourable soldiers like Captain Aleksic (played by Kusturica's son Stribor) – and the director's venomous contempt for the international media emerges from one scene where Luka shouts “I'll put an end to your babbling!” as he throws his television set out the window, or another in which Milos burps into a fatuous American reporter's microphone.

Where 'Life is a Miracle' is let down, however, is by the very exuberance that normally makes Kusturica's films so exciting. Although its opening half an hour is exhaustingly busy, with incidents that criss-cross like passing trains, not very much happens that is of actual narrative importance, and Kusturica would have done better to tighten his focus rather than to bludgeon the viewer with empty excess. In a similar vein, his characters are so much larger than life, and drawn with such baroque whimsy, that it is difficult to engage with them as human beings once the romantic storyline commences. Kusturica has already explored Yugoslavian divisiveness (not to mention rail tunnels) in his masterful 'Underground' (1995) – 'Life is a Miracle', while still rich and colourful, pales by comparison.

It's Got: A lovesick donkey; rampaging bears; sex with penguins; flying beds; and a bridge-building hero.

It Needs: Tighter construction.


This Shakespearean take on the Bosnian conflict is full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.