This article was updated on May 18, 2004.
Although known for his magical realist flights of fancy, helmer Emir Kusturica plays it relatively straight with “Life Is a Miracle.” Set around the 1992 outbreak of war in Bosnia, baggy but fitfully compelling black comedy focuses on a Serbian railway engineer, a young Muslim nurse and the engineer’s captured soldier son. Although more substantial than helmer’s “Black Cat, White Cat,” “Miracle” has less depth than his 1995 Palme d’Or winner “Underground,” fewer fresh ideas and feels oddly dated. Dragged out running time will derail distribution beyond arthouse and fest markets.
Action is set in sleepy Bosnian town of Golobuci, where hero Luka (Kusturica regular Slavko Stimac) from Belgrade has settled with his manic-depressive, ex-opera singer wife Jadranka (Vesna Trivalic) and his soccer-mad son Milos (Vuk Kostic), a smart, too-good-to-be-true teenager with dreams of playing for a top team.
Luka is overseeing the construction of a railway that will bring tourism to the area. Much of pic’s action takes place on the railway itself, where people travel on hand-cranked cars, and at Luka’s converted station home. A donkey — seemingly lovelorn and suicidal — belonging to Vujan (Obrad Durovic) occasionally blocks the rails, a device with an expected pay off at the film’s climax.
Muslim nurse Sabaha (Natasa Solak) first spies Luka carrying Jadranka into the hospital for a shot to treat a manic episode, and dreams of someday being carried in his arms. For a love interest, she’s but a fleeting shadow in pic’s opening hour.
Kusturica dallies with a series of music-drenched set pieces — a football match where Jadranka spontaneously starts singing arias and violence erupts; a drunken going-away party for Milos after he’s drafted — that feel much like reruns of the large ensemble sequences in previous fare.
Rumors of war are consistently ignored by Luka. Soldier acquaintance Aleksic (helmer’s own son Stribor Kusturica) promises him, with thumping irony, that “if all goes to plan there will be no war.”
On the eve of destruction, Jadranka runs off with a Hungarian cymbal player, and Milos is soon captured. Aleksic brings round Sabaha to stay at Luka’s, and before long she’s settling in as the lady of the house, eventually getting into Luka’s bed during a nighttime bombing, instigating their romance.
Shakespearean touchstones peppered throughout tap a bit too much on the nose, with citations of “Romeo and Juliet” and “As You Like It’s” famous “all the world’s a stage” line, although film’s coincidence-laden happy ending is more reminiscent of the Bard’s late romances, particularly “A Winter’s Tale” given Jadranka’s abrupt return to the story. But to honey over one of the 20th century’s greatest and most recent civil wars with mythological and literary references feels uncomfortably like love-conquers-all patness, the artistic equivalent of the old hippy gesture, a flower in the barrel of a gun.
Helmer’s last substantial film, “Underground,” reaped a whirlwind of controversy, fairly or not, and was accused of offering metaphorically occluded Serbian propaganda. It’s likely “Life Is a Miracle” will reopen some of these wounds, given that the Serbs featured are shown by and large as peace-loving victims of circumstance. Moreover, when a Muslim is shot in the final act, it is mistakenly but conveniently by a fellow Muslim, not an inconceivable event, but one that misses a chance to balance the atrocity spreadsheet.
In pic’s press notes, Kusturica argues that laying blame on any side in the conflict “freezes the problem” rather than solves it, and it’s understandable, if contentious, that he would want to move on from such a rhetoric of guilt. If anything, it’s the media who come off as pic’s biggest villains, with a Yankee-voiced reporter (Danica Todorovic) spewing platitudes and misinterpreting events, eventually symbolically silenced at one point by a gunshot through a television set.
Still, there’s an evasiveness about Kusturica’s filmmaking here, suggesting a retreat into whimsy and a paucity of ideas and intellectual depth that one wouldn’t expect from a filmmaker of his stature. Even his symbolism ain’t what it used to be, with a dog and cat fighting over a dead bird about as profound as it gets. It doesn’t help that the characters are more schematic than usual in this, with a troubling strain of misogyny in the treatment of Jadranka nibbling at the surface.
Perfs are adequate but not outstanding, with Slavko Stimac bringing a certain warmth and likability to Luka that chugs the film along. Natasa Solak has the same wan coloring as Mirjana Jokovic, star of “Underground,” but not the same range. It says a lot that pic’s most charismatic, sympathetic character is the expressive donkey who carries the climax on his back.
Tech credits continue business as usual theme, with music by Kusturica’s own band, the No Smoking Orchestra, contributing jaunty folk-flecked themes that give pic added bounce for a time before becoming slightly monotonous. Lensing by Michel Amathieu doesn’t have the same gritty beauty of Kusturica’s regular DP Vilko Filac, but has a certain pastoral luster.