Life Is A Miracle Review
Emir Kusturica’s Life Is A Miracle is set in a small Bosnian town where the inhabitants – crazy, every last one of them – see their lives changed by the opening of a new railway line and the outbreak of the Bosnian war in 1992. It’s a great big cartoon of a movie – constantly inventive, constantly pushing its own boundaries and raising itself to ever greater heights of visual and emotional complexity. The screen is constantly full of activity and often quite striking imagery, full of grand gestures and passions, simultaneously filled with poetic lyricism and earthy physicality.
The Djukic family have moved from the city to a remote Bosnian village. Luka (Slavko Stimac), the father, is there as the chief engineer on a railway project connecting a 12 mile section of track linking Bosnia and Serbia. The move has taken its toll on his highly-strung family and Luka finds himself the target for the frustrations of his wife Jadranka (Vesna Trivalic) – a former opera singer who is now prone to attacks of hysteria, and their son Milos (Vuk Kostic), whose ambitions to play major league football for Partizan Belgrade are restricted by him playing for a small local team in the middle of nowhere. It’s a bit of a crazy family, but the inhabitants of the town (and their animals) are no less colourful. Luka’s uncle Radovan is the mayor of the town, trying to expand the prospects of the townsfolk through the opening of the new railway project, while protecting them from invading Croatian bears. His ruthless secretary however has more commercial self-interests at heart. With all their trouble, conflicts and differences, the people and animals nevertheless live in a kind of harmonious coexistence with each other. But when the war breaks out, lines of friendship are redrawn along religious and military lines. Instead of signing up for Partizan Belgrade, Milos is signing up for the army, Jadranka has disappeared with a Hungarian cymbalist and Luka finds himself holding hostage a kidnapped Muslim nurse from the local hospital, Sabaha (Natasa Solak).
The characters in Life Is A Miracle are prone to the deepest human and animal passions, fuelled by love, jealousy, greed, pride and ambition. Animals themselves are a constant presence in the film, getting more or less equal billing with the human characters, mirroring their activities and behaviour – fighting like cats and dogs and stubborn as mules. But they the behaviour of the humans is not so restrained that it needs the subtle use of metaphors to bring it out – the animals themselves form part of the whole, colourful tapestry of life in which the characters’ passion, exuberance and enthusiasm for life is pushed to the limit and beyond. Similarly, an extraordinary scene of the town’s bad guys doing lines of cocaine off the railway lines while hanging from the front of a slowly moving train in no uncertain or subtle manner shows both the source of their income (the benefits they have accrued from the new railway line), the utter excess of it and their completely over-the-top extravagance.
The film constantly operates on this enormous scale – a football match takes place in the fog of war like a battle (the words ‘match’ and ‘battle’ are even confused at one point), love scenes taking place under waterfalls and on flying beds over beautiful evening landscapes, while dramatic lines of blood trail along on the expansive snow – but more than just grand gestures, these and many other similar scenes also contain an abundance of smaller details, put across with finesse. Music is used to enhance these moments - a brass band appropriately accompanies the bear hunt and the shambolic grand opening ceremony of the railway line, as does Jadranka's shrill opera arias, which also invigorate the roaring battle and rioting of the football match. For Luka, it’s a simple flute that he plays in moments of contemplation. Kusturika’s own ‘No Smoking Orchestra’ keeps the theme playful and sensitive throughout. Despite the grandness of scale, the focus of the film always remains on life. Even the Bosnian war, though we are constantly aware of its presence in the second half of the film, forms little more than a background against which new human passions and alliances are played out.
This is only scratching the surface of the many delights to be found in the two and a half hours of this astonishing film. Life Is A Miracle is a film of absolute and beautiful abandon. There are three years of Emir Kusturica’s life tied up in this film and every mood and emotion that this period gave rise to shows up on the screen, unrestrained and uninhibited, with openness and honesty and no small amount of talent.
Life Is A Miracle is released in the UK by Artificial Eye as a special 2-disc set. The DVD is Region 2 encoded in PAL format.
The image, appropriately for the film, is bold and colourful, with deep, rich hues, warm tones, balanced lighting and strong contrast. There is scarcely a mark on the print, but there are some digital artefacts in the transfer. Edge-enhancement is visible, though not extensively problematic. More evident is the grain in the image, sometimes causing macro-blocking problems – either that or it’s the encoding itself is responsible for bringing out the grain in this way. Again, it’s not a serious problem, but will be more noticeable on some displays than others.
Dolby Digital 5.1 and Dolby Digital 2.0 tracks are included. The 5.1 mix is strong, clear, vibrant and dynamic – again perfectly in tune with the tone of the film itself. There is quite a bit of low oomph-ah in the brass band music and it is the music that for the most part makes wider use of the speakers, which is otherwise mainly centre-based for dialogue. The explosions during the bombardment of the town are thunderingly loud.
English subtitles are optional and in white font. They are placed rather high in the frame, but don’t obscure the picture too much.
All the extras for the film are included on the second disc in the set. Emir Kusturica, A Tender Barbarian (50:07) is a long documentary showing the director at work on Life Is A Miracle, taking a break to preside over the jury at Cannes, covering wider aspects of his background, films, love of music and ambitions to build a village for filmmakers. A short Making Of (8:32) gives a taste of the on-set atmosphere during the filming. You’ve any amount of material in this film to make a great Theatrical Trailer (1:42), and this one captures it very well. An Emir Kusturica Biography takes an overview of the director’s film career and includes a biography.
Life Is A Miracle is close to a masterpiece and it’s a measure of how great a director Kusturica is that any disappointment that comes from this film is mostly down to a perceived repetition of techniques, scenes, situations and characterisations that made films like Black Cat White Cat, Underground, and particularly Kusturica's eariler work, so refreshingly original. The fact that there has been no real progression should not diminish from the fact that Kusturica’s talent still far outshines most of his European contemporaries, making perceptive observations and popular entertainment with verve, wit and originality. Life Is A Miracle has all the charm, invention and magnificently bizarre characterisation of A Very Long Engagement, but crucially with all the warmth, heart and humanism that Jeunet’s films lack. Artificial Eye’s Region 2 release gives this film the 2-disc special treatment it fully deserves.
Last updated: 25/06/2018 03:38:15