Back to Normandy (2004); Life is a Miracle (2007)

FILM, Film Society

This week at the Wellington Film Society: Nicolas Philibert and Emir Kusterica.

While René Allio’s reputation in France is considerably greater than it is elsewhere, his film Moi, Pierre Rivière, Ayant Egorgé Ma Mère, Ma Soeur, Et Mon Frère… has developed a hardcore following for its unique interpretation of a Michel Foucault case study. Combining Foulcault’s analysis of a famous 1835 murder in provincial France with a rare sort of ethnography, Allio used real-life people from the village in the 1970s to recreate the killings on film. Nicolas Philibert, best known for his charming documentary To Be and To Have, was an assistant director on Moi, Pierre Rivière, and with Back to Normandy returns to the village to find out what happened to the cast.

Part of Foucault’s attention on Rivière was focused on the way mental illness and the apparent irrationality of the murderer clashed with the so-called rationality of the Enlightenment, and how the irrationality attempted to be controlled (e.g. through language, norms, behaviour) via the rationality prescribed by science, psychiatry, judiciary, and philosophy. Philibert’s approach here is to subtly subvert the rationality of documentary film. As he interviews his subjects, his subjects begin to displayi failing memories, changing life-paths, frustrations, and wishes—all which challenge the rationality that a mere documentary recounting a tale thirty years ago should be able to show.

While the film’s great success lies in its human subjects, it is less successful in its depiction of bucolic village life; the cyclical everydayness (such as piglets being born and pigs being slaughtered in quite graphic detail) is a little too jarring in its unashamed symbolism. The link between the historical events and the modern day equivalent also falls flat—surprising, given the power of Philibert’s human subjects. However, when it comes to showing the effect that time has on what people thought they could once rationally define, Philibert is able to coalesce some of Foucault’s provocative theses into a moving documentary.

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The train is one of modernity’s great symbols of unfettered progress and movement. Emir Kusterica’s Life is a Miracle, however, shows the train in quite a different light—it suggests stifled movement, difference, and insurmountable barriers. Set in the Balkans during the early nineties war, the film chronicles the breakdown of the Yugoslavian state in what is Kusterica’s trademark absurdist style. For fans of Kusterica, Life is a Miracle offers no surprises when it comes to tone, yet for those new to his work, it’s a perfect example of the Serbian director’s skewed take on relationships and conflict.

The film begins frenetically: a postman in a small Serbian town travels around the community, self-propelling himself along the train track while chaos explodes around him; animals behave as humans, humans behave as animals. The village (a set initially constructed for the film, now Kusturica’s hometown) and its crazed community is further heightened by nonsensical framing, grotesque close-ups, constantly moving camerawork, and the punky exuberance of the score, composed by director’s own No Smoking Orchestra (of which Kusterica is a member).

Luka (Slavko Stimac), meanwhile, is an engineer who helped devise the railroad which connects Bosnia to Serbia (this was in the Yugoslavian days). As the war breaks around him, his family life disintergates; first his wife leaves him (for a Hungarian), then his son is taken prisoner. He soon falls in love with a Bosnian Muslim he is holding hostage in exchange for his imprisioned son, with all sorts shenanigans taking place as a result.

Melding elements of Romeo and Juliet and Frank Capra wish-fulfilment, the film’s idealistic unification of conflicting parties is arguably due to criticism Kusturica faced for his supposedly pro-Serbian biases (and Bosnian baiting) in his previous work. (He’s now not particularly fashionable for his nationalistic and right-wing public persona.) While this latest film undoubtedly tackles conflict on comical and absurdist terms, rather than in an explicitly political or critical way (not that this is a bad thing at all, c.f. Catch-22, The Good Soldier Svejk), Kusturica never really nails the contrast between the absurd and the all-too-human cruelty of the surroundings. Subsequently, the emotional impact and anything that might insulate him from being accused of political whitewashing is perhaps a little compromised. Still, Life is a Miracle is an enjoyable romp, and despite a lack of resonance shows off an auteur’s idiosyncratic and compelling vision.

Film Societies in twelve centres run an annual programme of weekly/bi-monthly film screenings. Membership entitles the holder free admission to screenings for a 12-month period. Further details are available online at filmsociety.wellington.net.nz. For information about a film society closest to you, visit the New Zealand Federation of Film Societies.