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Wednesday, July 13, 2005

The greatest hits of Kusturica

Life is a Miracle

Rating: * * * * (out of 5)
Director: Emir Kusturica
Running time: 154 minutes
Language: Serbo-Croatian, English, German, Hungarain
Currently showing
[See Japan Times movie listings]

In 1995, director Emir Kusturica won the Palme d'Or at Cannes -- for the second time -- with his epic, absurdist tale of four decades of love and war in Yugoslavia, "Underground." Despite the honor, many critics laid into the film for its purported pro-Serbian bias, not the greatest thing to be accused of at a time Serbian paramilitary thugs were ethnically cleansing Srebenica and sniping at civilians in the streets of Sarajevo.

News photo
Natasa Solak and Slavko Stimac in "Life Is a Miracle"

Kusturica, who was born in Sarajevo, blew his top, and vowed to quit filmmaking for good. This made for good theater, but fortunately after a short break to clear his mind, the director was back in 1998 with the raucous Gypsy movie "Black Cat, White Cat." Kusturica gave politics a wide berth here in favor of a film that, in his words, "should send the audience home happy."

With his latest, "Life Is a Miracle," Kusturica tries to have his cake and eat it too, with a heartwarming film on the Bosnian war. Like Roberto Benigni's "Life Is Beautiful," whose title it echoes, Kusturica's film wants to show how the wonder of life can be affirmed, even in the most terrible circumstances. And, just like Benigni's comedy in the concentration camps, with "Life Is a Miracle," you can admire its ideals, without necessarily buying them.

The story begins in backwoods Bosnia near the Serbian border in pre-war 1992. Luka (Slavko Stimac) is a Serbian engineer from Belgrade who has moved to a remote, rural area, with dreams of building a railroad through the mountains between Bosnia and Serbia. Luka's wife, Jadaranka (Vesna Trivalic), a slightly hysteric opera singer, and his son, Milos (Vuk Kostic), an aspiring soccer player, resent the fact that their careers have stalled by moving to the middle of nowhere.

The town's mayor, Radovan (Branislav Lalovic), a bulbous-nosed, bushy-bearded fixer, is sold on the idea by Luka, but larger events threaten to derail the project. The mayor's piggish aide, Filipovic (Nikola Kojo), aligns himself with darker nationalist forces who seek to start a war for their own ends.

An apolitical man, Luka thinks he can ignore the coming conflict, but his son Milos is drafted. At his goodbye party, Jadaranka -- who's sick of it all -- runs off with an oily Hungarian musician, and Luka is left alone. Jadaranka had been a royal pain in the butt, so she's barely missed, but Luka is wracked with worry over his son. He asks a friend in the Yugoslav Army, Capt. Aleksic (Stribor Kusturica, the director's son), to look after Milos.

During combat at the front, however, Milos is taken prisoner by the Bosnians, and Luka despairs of seeing him again. A solution presents itself, though: The Serbian soldiers leave a Bosnian prisoner with Luka, a pretty young nurse named Sabaha (Natasa Solak). The idea is to exchange her for Milos at some point, but things get complicated when Luka falls for her hard, and she reciprocates. When the Muslim army advances, the lovers flee and hide at a remote house in the hills, but reality soon catches up with them, and the U.N. demands that Sabaha be returned in a prisoner repatriation program.

The "Romeo and Juliet" theme bears no small resemblance to Kusturica's "Black Cat, White Cat," and in a sense, "Life Is a Miracle" plays like a summation of his work so far. There's a load of slapstick comedy, much of it involving animals, like from his 1985 film "When Father Was Away on Business." There's a touch of surreal imagery, with Luka and Sabaha flying over the country side in their bed, which recalls 1993's "Arizona Dream." Themes of escape and political cynicism from "Underground," and the rollicking, anarchic Balkan sensibility that marked both 1988's "Time of the Gypsies" and the following year's "Black Cat, White Cat." Some will say that Kusturica's repeating himself, but it's perhaps better to view this as his greatest hits.

Given that the Bosnian conflict has largely faded from the public eye after 9/11 and Iraq, Kusturica has mostly avoided criticism of his politics this time around. Still, anyone who has seen "Savior" (1998), with its chilling tale of a Bosnian female hostage who was raped in captivity and then returned to scorn and an even worse fate as a "collaborator," will have a hard time warming to Kusturica's feel-good take on the hostage situation. That's not to say Kusturica is "wrong." In fact, he claims his tale is based on a true story, and it's safe to say his heart is in the right place, with those who would follow their hearts and not some blowhard's dream of patriotism.

It's the Gypsy sensibility, more so than the politics, that leaves a lasting impression. Kusturica stages scene after scene with the energy of a whippet shot out of a cannon. Whether it's a drunken bear hunt accompanied by a brass band, a runaway stretcher careening through hospital corridors or a soccer match that descends into a nationalist riot, Kusturica aims for a full-on, circus-like vibe. He has long been considered Fellini's most worthy successor, and "Life Is a Miracle" may just cement that reputation.

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