Dir:Emir Kusturica. Fr-Serb-Mont. 2004. 154mins

Experiencingan Emir Kusturica film is like being stone cold sober in a room of drunken,overwrought revellers. Life Is A Miracle is no exception. A boisterousbear hug of a film, it explores the bitter ironies of the Bosnian-Serbianconflict with an irrepressible appetite for the joys and sorrows of humanexistence.

Freewheelingfarce gives way to tender tragedy as the Marx Brothers' Duck Soup bleedsinto a self-conscious modern reworking of Shakespeare's Romeo And Juliet,told to the manic beat of an over-excitable brass band.

Theeffect is exhausting and often feels more like a greatest hits package from thedirector rather than an attempt to break new ground or divine fresh inspirationin old familiar themes.

Kusturica'sfirst fictional feature since Black Cat, White Cat (1998) will bewelcomed by loyalists like a long lost friend, suggesting solid arthousereturns in those European territories where a new Kusturica is an event torelish. This is still the kind of committed, uncompromising, beautifullyrealised auteur cinema that wins hearts and even festival prizes.

Non-believersand many non-Europeans will find its emotional incontinence all too easy toresist which will limit its commercial appeal to below the levels achieved byhis previous Palme d'Or winners When Father Was Away On Business (1985)and Underground (1995).

LifeIs A Miracleoften evokes memories of the superior Undergroundand it may be that sense of familiarity that will encourage an element ofcritical reserve.

Onceagain, we are plunged into a crazy, mixed-up world in which every socialgathering seems to end in a boozy brawl or a maudlin sing-song or both. Adepressed donkey runs wild, a cheerful postman skips his way through fields, remodelledcars hurtle along railway lines that rarely see carriages and danger isapproached by closing your eyes and hoping that everything will work out forthe best. That's life, as the song says.

Thesetting this time is a remote Bosnian village in 1992 where Luka (Stimac) worksas an engineer and dreams of a railway link that will boost the area's tradeand tourism. His chaotic life revolves around his highly-strung opera singerwife Jadranka (Trivalic) who bursts into song at the slightest provocation andtheir son Milos (Kostic) who is desperate to make a name for himself as afootballer.

Evenas talk of war starts to circulate, Luka retains a blind faith in the commonhumanity of his friends and neighbours. "People are reasonable here," heargues, convinced that the war will not touch them. The first hour of the filmseems deliriously determined to confirm his judgement, revelling in thecommunity as it hunts for bears, celebrates the announcement of the new railwayand accepts life with a philosophical shrug and another swig of alcohol. Thenthe mayor is assassinated in the woods.

Themood shifts and becomes slightly calmer as the reality begins to hit home.Milos is called to serve in the military and eventually captured.

Hiswife runs off with a Hungarian musician and Luka is given the responsibilityfor Sabaha (Solak), a Muslim nurse whom they hope to offer in exchange forMilos's freedom. Slowly, through kindness, concern and shared hardship, Lukabegins to fall in love with his captive. It seems an impossibility in the midstof this global circus but eventually he must face the conflict between hisfeelings as a father and his hopes as a man and find a way to make themcompatibility. Life is still a place in which everything is possible.

LifeIs A Miracleis expertly crafted with cinematographer Michel Amathieu capturing the goldenlight and burnished leaves of autumn as well as the piercing white expanses ofsnowy winter landscapes. The production design of a ramshackle station house,log cabins, a small menagerie of animals and endless converted cars ensures thefilm is always interesting on a visual level and the actors play their roles tothe hilt with Stimac creating a likable optimist and dreamer in Luka.

Theeventual romance with Natasa Solak's appealing Sabaha creates some genuinefeeling and tension to balance the blustering comedy, unsubtle satire andrelentless exuberance of the piece. The effectiveness of the romance within theoverall film suggests that less is more but that seems the one thing Kusturicamight be unwilling to embrace.

Prodcos: LesFilms Alain Sarde, Cabiria Films, France 2 Cinema
Int'l sales:
Wild Bunch, StudioCanal
Exec prods:
Christine Gozlan, Pierre Edelman
AlainSarde, Maja, Emir Kusturica
RankoBozic Emir Kusturica
Prod des:
SvetolikMica Zaje
DejanSparavlo, Emir Kusturica
Main cast:
Slavko Stimac, NatasaSolak, VesnaTrivalic, VukKostic, AleksandarBercek, Stribor Kusturica, Nikola Kojo, Mirjana Karanovic, Branislave Lalevic,Davor Janjic, Adnan Omerovic, Obrad Durovic