Out of the pastoral
Unlike the overwhelming majority of films about the war in the former Yugoslavia, Life 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
- Kusturica in an interview with Vesna Milivojevic, “Ovde nema mesta za bogate dripce,” in Glas javnosti, glas-javnosti.co.yu/arhiva/2004/09/25. [↩]
- Peter Handke, A Journey to the Rivers: Justice for Serbia. Translated by Scott Abbott. New York: Viking, 1997, p.8 [↩]
- 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.” [↩]