The Transformation Problem

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Review of 'Life is a Miracle', director Emir Kusturica

Bosnia, 1992. Luka, a Serbian engineer from Belgrade, lives in a mountain village with his opera-singing wife, Jadranka, and their soccer-mad son, Milos.

Luka is preparing to build a railroad that will transform the region into a tourist paradise but remains deaf to the persistent rumblings of war. When conflict explodes, Jadranka disappears on the arm of a musician and Milos is called up to fight.

The Serbian army appoints Luka guardian of a Muslim hostage, Sabaha. Before long Luka has fallen in love with her but she has to be exchanged for a Serbian captive - his son.

Imagine a two and a half hour blend of Shakespeare and the Marx brothers, defiant of any regular genre but enamoured of Frank Capra era Hollywood, where a menagerie of animals provides anarchic commentary on incidents profound and absurd, specific and universal, brutal and beautiful, to do with war and love. This might then prepare you for the world of Emir Kusturica.

Born in Sarajevo in 1954, he began his career there as a TV film director after studying film-making technologies at Famu School in Prague. In 1981 his first film, Do You Remember Dolly Bell?, won the Golden Lion Award in Venice. His other films include Time of the Gypsies, When Father Was Away On Business and Underground. Life is a Miracle, despite being politically oblique, won a National Education Prize at Cannes 2004.

He makes a living doing TV commercials and playing in his gypsy/techno band The No Smoking Orchestra, which features throughout Life is a Miracle. It was shot over 14 months mainly on location in mountains near Zlatibor, close to the Serbia-Bosnia border.

Kusturica relies on impulsive but time-consuming micro-direction of actors and animals in constantly restless movements, requiring fluid camerawork heightened by constant on and off screen music: 'I'd define it as a very old-fashioned modern movie, in the sense of how we highlight emotions instead of describing who was guilty, who was not, which for the western world in the case of the Bosnian war was very fashionable.'

In distancing himself from mainstream Hollywood he asks, 'Has humanity really progressed in such a stupid, idiotic way? Or is it a new ideology that uses Hollywood to serve the conception of a corporate world in which the consumer, not the human, not the citizen, is better if you don't intrigue him, if you do not draw from him some human reaction. It is a fake idea to think that the market is the only measurement and regulator of our social and psychological processes.'

A new Oscar category will have to be developed for Best Performance by an Animal in a Movie. Though last year that might have been won by the traffic-dodging chicken in City of God, so many, winged or four-legged, would clean up from this film, with a donkey probably taking it by a nose.

Among the side-splitting humour is a scene which quite literally redefines the notion of snorting a line of coke, and another where a goalkeeper gets elaborately pissed on!

Among the moments that make you wince are various forms of violence to women. Indeed his representation of women is a questionable Achilles' heel in Kusturica's otherwise intoxicating exuberance.


Release date: 11 March