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In the Realm of Natural Transcendence: Emir Kusturica’s Life Is a Miracle

Out of the pastoral

Unlike the overwhelming majority of films about the war in the former YugoslaviaLife Is a Miracle (Kad je zivot bio cudo) teems with character, passion and humour. Kusturica’s film is a swirling, eerily ambivalent paean to the unyielding optimism of those who refuse to relinquish their individuality and succumb to the dehumanising and ultimately superficial sense of patriotic duty.

Life Is a Miracle is Kusturica’s ninth film, his second about the war in the former Yugoslavia. It is situated in a small town on the (then administrative) border between Bosnia and Serbia, in 1992, in the wake of the Bosnian war. In the opening sequences, Kusturica maps life in the last and perhaps most grotesque phase of Yugoslav state socialism. The grandiose plans and bizarre celebrations of revolutionary achievements, industrial development, and workers’ self-management are contrasted with endemic corruption and national homogenisation, heralding the imminent collapse of the system.

Kusturica’s films are known for their unconventional narrative organization. Focusing on a family of Bosnian Serbs — Luka (Slavko Stimac), an engineer, his wife Jadranka (Vesna Trivalic), an opera singer, and their son Milos (Vuk Kostic), an aspiring soccer player — the filmmaker is again less interested in the dramaturgical structure of the narrative than the honest, uncompromising portrayal of his heroes. With the crisis approaching, a regional party leader is murdered during a forest hunt, and the news from Sarajevo and Belgrade grows increasingly more disturbing. However, the locals continue with their everyday life, hoping that the chaos and bloodshed may somehow be averted. Luka is projecting a tunnel that would promote the region as a tourist destination, Jadranka still dreams of a grand career in opera, and Milos is awaiting a call up by the Partizan Belgrade Football Club. Nevertheless, the unfolding of the civil war decimates the family. Milos is conscripted and Jadranka runs away with a musician. When he receives the news of Milos’s captivity, Luka’s world seems to be falling apart until he becomes the guardian of a young girl, Sabaha (Natasa Solak), a Muslim hostage waiting to be exchanged for his son.

Certain themes and images appear with such regularity in Kusturica’s films that their meaning and significance demand attention. Kusturica pointed out in a recent interview,1 that his film career continues a particular line of interest in the works of Aleksandar Petrovic and Zivojin Pavlovic, filmmakers who, alongside Dusan Makavejev, emerged as leading voices of the 1960s Yugoslav Black Wave.

These directors examined the ideological misconceptions and totalitarian spirit through the prism of the Balkan mentality, marking one of the most prolific periods in the history of Serbian and Yugoslav cinema. Kusturica continues to explore life in turbulent times, historical misconceptions, revolutionary passion, and ideological blindness, accentuating one of the most neglected and least examined poetic motifs in the films of the Black Wave, the alienation of his characters from the world of Nature.

One of the most persistent leitmotifs in chronicling and interpreting the war in the former Yugoslavia is the understanding of the Balkan conflict as a clash between the urban (presumably “civilised”) and rural (presumably “uncivilised”) society. This view draws inspiration from the brutal, medieval-style sieges of Sarajevo, Dubrovnik, Vukovar, Gorazde and other cities that marked the 1990s and resulted in the horrific atrocities against the civilian population. The savage, myopic, “pre-modern” violence is often attributed to the atavistic hatred of the rural population towards urbane lifestyle and “decadence” — the setting and climate that challenged the core postulates of the patriarchal order.

What such analyses, largely supported by post-Milosevic Serbian intelligentsia, choose to ignore is the complexity of the urbane populus in Yugoslavia. Following the devastating post-1945 purges by Tito’s communists, the autochthonous middle class in Yugoslav cities was all but decimated. It was to be gradually replaced by a heterogeneous mix of the remnants of small business, growing communist apparatus, and waves of post-war migration from the countryside that formed the emerging working and middle class in the rapidly changing agrarian society. This process had begun with the growth of urban areas and modernisation of the cities at the beginning of the twentieth century, and gained momentum with the communist revolution and the emergence of the state-controlled economic system.

Marx rarely writes about Nature, observing it merely as a force to be conquered by the advent of human progress and the constantly evolving means of production. In accordance with his teaching, the architects of Yugoslav socialism with a “human face” identified the emerging working class as the agent of progress and social change. The films of Petrovic, Pavlovic and Makavejev suggest that the sweeping transformation of an agrarian society and culture into a semi-industrialised socialist economy resulted in a crisis of identity with significant repercussions on the lives of their protagonists. This is first and foremost epitomised in their characters’ loss of proximity to Nature. The petty thieves and suburban anti-heroes in Pavlovic’s When I am Dead and Gone (1967) and Petrovic’s I Even Met Happy Gypsies (1967), and local bureaucrats in Makavejev’s Love Affair (1967) are all victims of post-war industrialisation and exodus to expanding urban areas. Confused and disorientated, they struggle to comprehend the bewildering party decrees of revolutionary achievements and industrial progress. Poverty-stricken, trapped in bizarre, uninspiring jobs and transitory relationships in an urban squalor bereft of purpose or transcendence, they resort to alcohol, criminality, and violence, trying to resolve their predicaments and assuage their disappointments.

In Kusturica’s early films, his small town characters, living in post-war Yugoslavia, confront an array of social, political, and cultural challenges in their surroundings. Dino (Slavko Stimac) in Do You Remember Dolly Bell (1984) enjoys rock music and the first sexual experiences of his teenage years while Mesha (Miki Manojlovic) and Senija (Mirjana Karanovic) are caught in a tumultuous 1948 break-up between Tito and Stalin, in When Father’s Away On a Business (1985).

Kusturica’s films about Gypsies reveal a poetic attachment to the world of Nature. In Time of the Gypsies (1988) and Black Cat, White Cat (2000), the filmmaker suggests that Romas’ proximity to Nature is in direct correlation with their nomadic lifestyle, dreamlike existence, a sense of destiny, emotional intensity, and most importantly, intuition. Nature frequently emerges as a backdrop for their dreams, quarrels and festivities, a benevolent ally and protector on their way to and out of trouble.

In his first film about the war in the former Yugoslavia, Underground (1995), the director offers a kaleidoscope of transformation of two communist revolutionaries. Blacky (Lazar Ristovski) and Marko (Miki Manojlovic) are portrayed as urbane guerrilla fighters; however, Kusturica constantly reminds the viewer of their rural roots. They react angrily after the occupation of Belgrade by the Nazis and quickly respond to the Communist Party’s call for resistance, yet their struggle for a “progressive” society is ironically contrasted to their hatred of urban decadence (theatre and actors), foreigners (Germans), and treatment of women and minorities with contempt. Blacky and a small band of followers withdraw to a Belgrade cellar where they spend the next half century, maintaining the pretence of normal life, preparing for an uprising and keeping the revolutionary zeal alive.

Marko, a disillusioned party veteran, betrays his country during the 1990s civil war. A wheelchair-bound arms smuggler, he dies at a nameless village on the frontline, doused in petrol. Blacky, who remains loyal to the ideals of the revolution, joins the war, but finds it unsettling and confounding. Moreover, he is forced to explain to his grown son the difference between the Sun and the Moon, a deer and a horse. After a lifetime spent in a cellar, detached from the world of Nature and brainwashed by their fanatical parents, the “children of the revolution” are unprepared to face the challenges of the outside world. It is not surprising that, in the final scene of Underground, amidst the festive atmosphere, while a small island drifts away from the mainland carrying the revelers, Ivan (Slavko Stimac) addresses the audience speaking directly into the camera and evokes a pastoral fantasy, a settlement of landless, dispossessed people, building new houses, living and working on the land, determined to recreate their long-lost homeland. Using what Peter Handke once described as “the gentle authority of the narrator of a fairy-tale,”2 Ivan ends his monologue with the opening words of another tale: “Once there was a country…”

Steeped in contemporary history, Life Is a Miracle highlights the closeness of Kusturica’s characters to the Natural world. Most of them are small-town professionals (a nurse, an engineer, an army officer, an opera singer) who never lost proximity to Nature. Kusturica sees them as optimistic, naïve, and benevolent people who do not lament the breakdown of the old system or support the nationalist fervour of warring Bosnian factions. Nor do they attempt to resurrect the compromised ideals of the socialist brotherhood and unity or principles of “multiculturalism,” glorified by visiting Western journalists.3 Humanly convincing, with unquenchable optimism and charm, desperately trying to come to terms with the forces beyond their grasp, they give the film a sense of emotional intensity.

Kusturica’s film abounds with visual puns. The filmmaker discovers that even the most humble elements in nature may take on the stature of protagonists. As the whole region sinks towards tragedy, Vujan’s (Obrad Dujovic) enamoured and suicidal donkey blocks the rail tracks through the dangerous mountain passes, showing that love is perhaps worth dying for. While trains and tracks emerge as a poetic homage to Pavlovic, Kusturica stays away from the urban nightmare of polluted suburbia and squalid station bistros. Cut off from the surrounding mayhem, Luka and Sabaha seek transcendence in the world of pastoral simplicity, listening to Vujan’s lyrical reminiscences of his first love. They are shown as a couple with the capacity to realise the fundamental ideals of humanism, love, tolerance, and ability to understand, badly needed during the time of chaos and crisis. When Sabaha admits that she comes from an ordinary family and is not a daughter of a local Bosnian Muslim leader, Luka realises that the exchange plan may be all but over. Nevertheless, armed with hope and secluded from the rest of the world, they continue their relationship, confident that the seemingly impossible situation may somehow be resolved. The world of Nature, the Brueghellian pastures and paddocks of Bosnian hills, which persistently appear in their dreams, emerges as an ally of ostensibly doomed lovers. Even when Sabaha is wounded in a surprise attack, the couple escapes to security through the snow-covered landscape of the Bosnian mountains.

On the other hand, proponents of war and moral decline in the film persistently display their adversity to the world of Nature. The local party leader who organises the traditional hunt is killed in an ambush set up by his opponent. The cocaine-snorting war profiteer, a self-proclaimed Ubermensch, Kovacevic (Nikola Kojo) is seen as an agent of decline who imports weapons and disrupts peace in a small pastoral community. He dies grotesquely, blown up in a tunnel while having phone sex on a satellite line with Germany. The railway over beautiful mountainous passes is used to transport Serbian war equipment, the picturesque Drina river valley is occupied by ambushing Bosnian Muslim militias, and bridges across the river serve for prisoner exchanges. It is not surprising that most of the characters representing the ethical collapse are portrayed in grotesque miniatures or remain invisible, because the director refuses to individualise them. For the filmmaker and the vast portion of his audience, they are merely a reminder of a decade of carnage in the Balkans.

At a time when much of Eastern European cinema has settled into fulfilling comfortable expectations, Life Is a Miracle conveys a moving anti-war message. Reshuffling the old poetic motifs in his work and expanding his focus on the civil war in the former Yugoslavia, the filmmaker delivers a potent and inspiring love story about people who, in a time of crisis, maintain their proximity to the world of Nature. In a world overflowing with commercial banality, Kusturica’s work, along with that of Tarr and Sukhorov, is proof that the genuine voices of Eastern Europe will not be marginalised by the challenges and demands of the market economy.

  1. Kusturica in an interview with Vesna Milivojevic, “Ovde nema mesta za bogate dripce,” in Glas javnosti, glas-javnosti.co.yu/arhiva/2004/09/25. []
  2. Peter Handke, A Journey to the Rivers: Justice for Serbia. Translated by Scott Abbott. New York: Viking, 1997, p.8 []
  3. Following the prisoners’ exchange, Milos walks with his father towards the Serbian side of the bridge. An American journalist approaches them and asks a question about the exchange. Milos burps into her face. Kusturica has been highly critical of the role of the “democratic” West in the events in the Balkans. As the filmmaker pointed out in his recent interview: “I remember reading in the New York Times in 1990 that the civil war in Yugoslavia was about to start. I thought, if they know it’s about to start, why don’t they stop it, fuckers?” Kusturica, in an interview with Stojan Cerovic, in Vreme 718, “Nikad necu biti kul.” []


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