Although there is much to like about it (a good deal of the film is hilarious, and its boisterousness is life-affirming), Emir Kusturíca’s Zivot je cudo goes on too long, thins out, and romantically ends allegedly happily, but with a romance involving one character whom we have ceased to care about and another we have never cared about. On the other hand, one of the film’s set-pieces is tremendous. It is the nearly all-night party for twenty-year-old Milos Djuric, who the next morning is off to military service and war, derailing his dreams of playing professional soccer. The centerpiece of this remarkable passage is the boy himself, about whom we care deeply. We expect him to be killed and, like his father, railway engineer Luka, we become anxious when we hear that he in all likelihood has been captured by Muslims. The setting is Golobuci, a small town on the Bosnia-Serbia border; the time is 1992, at the launch of the Bosnian-Croatian-Serbian War. At the same time, Communist Yugoslavia is disintegrating.
The war material is good. A sniper shot, for instance, fells the mayor at a public ceremony, with blood coming through his trumpet with his last breath. Other matters are undone in a similar manner. Luka as built a stretch of railroad aimed at enhancing the tourist trade that, of course, the outbreak of war has ended altogether. Luka ends up, upon military order, blowing up what he himself has built.
Apart from Milos, my favorite character is the pet donkey who, lovesick, keeps trying to commit suicide on railroad tracks. When Luka is separated from Sabaha, the Muslim nurse with whom he has fallen in love, and who has been exchanged for locals who had been held prisoner, including Milos, he slips into becoming a lovesick would-be suicide—only to be saved by the donkey! Among the characters I cannot take, however, is Luka’s opera-singing wife, and Milos’s mother, Jadranka, who quits Luka to run off with a musician—although the official explanation for Jadranka’s absence is that she has been hospitalized for an allergic attack. Thus is Luka made vulnerable for his own dalliance. Jadranka is one long unfunny joke, not a character who draws Kusturíca’s affection as well as satire. As usual, animals (such as geese, cat, dog, etc.) delight, as do corrupt officials, whose corruption suggests where Communism is headed.
This film notwithstanding, Kusturíca is a contender for the title “the current world’s greatest filmmaker.” He has won thrice at Cannes—two of his films have won the Palme d’Or, and he additionally won as best director for another film. It is a sad thing that he is able to say this accurately: “The films I make belong to a kind of cinema that is vanishing. . . . cinema that puts the human being at the center and isn’t aimed only at serving the large companies and corporations that produce it.” At least one can say that much of Zivot je cudo suits this humane and noble aim.
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