Sarajevo-born filmmaker Emir Kusturica has been turning out features about the beauty and tragedy of his troubled homeland since the early 1980s. Time of the Gypsies (1988) is an almost surreal romantic fairytale; Underground (1995) uses a background of secret weapon manufacturing to tell a story of loyalty, treachery and love; a wedding in Black Cat White Cat (1998) can only go ahead after the demands of a cocaine-tooting gangster are derailed.
Kusturica’s films present a former Yugoslavia that’s larger than life: salt-of-the-earth types trying to make a living against the odds, grotesque villains running scams and hatching evil plans, casualties of war without a brass farthing making their own entertainment. Maudlin it isn’t. Throw into any of his films the slapstick comedy, the gypsy brass bands that seem to play on every corner, the drunken lunacy, and the animals. Oh yes, lots of animals, especially in Life is a Miracle.
Set in the early 1990s, just around the outset of the Balkan conflict, Life Is A Miracle sees Luka (Slavko Stimac), a Serb living in Bosnia, supervising the building of a tourist railway. He keeps a lovingly constructed model of the planned rail line at home. Luka lives with his slightly deranged opera singer wife Jadranka (Vesna Trivalic), and his son Milos (Vuk Kostic), a talented young footballer.
In an early scene, we see Milos, tipped for big things on the field, playing a game in absurdly foggy conditions. The game descends into farce when Jadranka goes down to the dug-out to talk to the coach, and demonstrates her full vocal range, bringing the match to a standstill. A riot ensues which culminates in the mayor, no less, pulling up a goalpost and braining a spectator.
Milos’ footballing plans are put on hold when he is called up to the front. Luka ignores the impending war and the explosions at first, and tries to carry on as normal, despite the suicidal donkey that stands across the railway track, holding up construction. But when he hears that Milos has been taken hostage, war comes home to him.
In the meantime Jadranka runs away with a musician, but when Luka is entrusted by the Serb army with guarding a beautiful Muslim hostage Sabaha (Natasa Solak), it’s suggested that he engineer a trade with the girl for Milos. Luka is hopeful at first, but things get confused when he falls in love with Sabaha. They’re the archetypal star-crossed lovers.
Kusturica’s first feature since Black Cat White Cat, Life is a Miracle blends the knockabout comedy of that film, sometimes uncomfortably, with the horror of war, though the latter is mostly only heard, not seen. In one late night scene, Luka invites the frightened Sabaha onto his bed for the first time, while bombs fall deafeningly and ever closer to their heads. Needless to say, the dog and cat that were nestling comfortably on the bed, only to make way for Sabaha, sit on the floor and stare, not amused.
While it shows how neighbours happily living together can suddenly find themselves on opposite sides, Life is a Miracle is an optimistic film. Kusturica treats every detail of his story with equal priority. That goes for the scenic countryside, the musical interludes and the bears. And the horse. And chickens. At 156 minutes, it’s probably half an hour too long, but nobody else treats such subject matter with the carnivalesque delight of Emir Kusturica.