This is an essay I wrote for my English 117 Intro To Cultural Theory class with Professor Christian Thorne. It was written to mimic the style of Hunter Thompson as a writing exercise. Please enjoy.
Emir Kusturica’s Movies Are Carnivalesque and Brilliant
I was first introduced to the work of Emir Kusturica by a frequently-unshod Western Massachusetts mountain-man and close friend, Satya Benson. I can’t quite piece together how it came up from the few shards of unreliable memory I have, but what resulted was us watching the two and a half hour long tour de force that is Life Is a Miracle, along with Venezuelan philosopher and additional close friend Santiago Ferris. Instantly, I knew I finally had a topic for this godforsaken essay.
I don’t think my mere words can get across how insane and wonderful this movie is. You fire the thing up, and instantly your television begins to reek of Drina cigarettes and strong brandy. From beginning to end, I was pinballing between laughing, marveling, and crying at whatever was on screen. I read one reviewer who described watching the film as being “uncomfortably like turning up to a party where everyone is already smashed out of their minds – and far too drunk to offer you a glass”. His first mistake was not watching the film drunk. His second mistake was forgetting to remove the stick from his ass before sitting down in the theater. To dislike this movie, and the other Kusturica films we’re going to talk about, is to dislike life. His flicks take life and amplify it, tune it up through some clanking contraption burgeoning with tubes and wires just to make sure you can really hear all the subtleties. And the magic that this contraption instills is the carnivalesque.
Being a lazy bum, I’m going to start with the obvious: that is, the pure aesthetics of the carnivalesque in these movies. There is almost always a hell of a lot going on on screen. Kusturica’s shots tend to be packed, full of people and animals and objects, all partying together. Other shots, while not visually packed, are close and intimate. In a medium defined by separation of the world of the actors from the world of the audience, this combination of mise en scenè and shot framing brings the crowd in, making you feel a part of the production. The actual things depicted on screen are often zany and kichy—Life Is a Miracle (more or less) begins with shots of the main character Luka’s postman friend Veljo almost driving his hand-pump rail cart into a crowd of sheep, followed by a shot of Luka drinking directly from an egg then getting in his ridiculous bright blue car on rails, which rumbles and clanks as, by some mechanism, it turns and sets itself down into the tracks so he can head off to work.
Adding to this carnival of chaos, animals are everywhere in these films. In both Life Is a Miracle and Time of the Gypsies, animals and livestock live side by side with people. Luka’s cat is constantly getting on the table and nibbling at the human food, often while it is in someone’s hands. Perhan’s turkey follows him around everywhere, a literal wingman on his date with Azra. The streets are full of dogs and children, all of whom run around and play, let loose and allowed to enjoy themselves. Nature and humanity are brought together in communion, more or less as equals (but always equals in their own identities— the animals aren’t great because they are like humans, but because they are what they are).
The films are auditorily chaotic too. Sounds of people talking are often layered over sounds of animals and vibrant Gypsy music. In the soccer match scene in Life Is a Miracle, the visual, auditory, and narrative chaos combine to create one of the greatest moments in the film. There’s cheering and chanting, Milos’ mom and grandfather the mayor singing, people talking (shouting because of all the noise), and people shooting fireworks. The stadium is full of fog, so it’s hard to see what’s going on. Miloš’ mom Jadranka talks to the soccer club owner while the mayor’s second in command Filipovic sends his henchmen to go piss on the goalie for Miloš’ team (Miloš’ friend Eso), all while the game is in progress. Suddenly, Miloš scores and everyone starts cheering and celebrating, but it quickly descends into a riot as a cop tries to interfere with the fight between Eso and Filipovic’s goons. The whole scene is highly entertaining (especially when the crowd gets caught up in the net and the mayor starts beating them with a goal post), in a carnivalesque way, but there are ominous undertones. The scene mirrors the fighting after the fall of Yugoslavia (the time period in which the movie is set): a conflict created by the fear stoked from politicians, turning neighbor against neighbor in the bloodiest ethno-religious conflict on European soil since World War II.
The juxtaposition of the absurdly hilarious with the absurdly terrible is what makes Kusturica’s form of narrative carnival so powerful. What he creates is carnivalesque on steroids. For those who fear the carnival is a mere escape enforced by the state, Kusturica injects his revelry with an equal dose of tragedy. If you’re the gloomy sort who thinks life is just suffering, Kusturica shows you how absurd and funny that suffering is. And through all of this, the unnecessary pain and fighting, the horrors of reality, life is still beautiful.
In Life Is a Miracle, the goofball mailman Veljo discovers an old man dead, mangled in a tree, killed by bears… which we then see in his home, sitting at the table and bathing in the sink. Veljo tries to tell Luka about the bears slaughtering people… but catches him during a big band practice for the railway opening, and crawls and squeezes and shimmies through the crowd of musicians, making a fool of himself, only for Luka to make jokes about the bears. In Time of the Gypsies, Azra’s mom says she won’t let Perhan marry his lover, so he tries to hang himself from a church bell and gets comically pulled up and down as he flails about yelling for Azra. When Perhan’s grandma won’t give Uncle Merdzan money, after a very scary and intense confrontation, Merdzan decides to use a car as a makeshift crane and hoists the walls and roof of Perhan’s family home into the air. When Perhan dies, it is sad and horrible, but also a little funny, because he has a heavenly vision of his turkey, framed to initially look like a dove, descending to take him to heaven. Consistently, Kusturica takes serious and sad events and either pairs them up with or makes them into incredibly silly and funny scenes, or the other way around. He shows you what life is, and how it’s meant to be lived: party hard, cry hard.
In Bosnia, there’s a genre of Muslim folk music called Sevdah (Gocić 85). The word Sevdah also refers to the state of “extreme exaltation and deep sadness” that Slavs enter while listening to music. Sevdah comes from the Turkish word for “black bile”, which refers to a feeling of both longing/desire and suffering/pain. What Kusturica does is make a new form of the carnivalesque, one that incorporates Sevdah into its very fabric. I think the format of his work necessitates this permutation of the carnivalesque, the addition of suffering as a flipside to revelry. Narrative necessitates context, and in life celebration exists in the context of suffering. Without it, these films would seem cartoonish. With it, they feel real, true and vibrant on a level few other works of cinema achieve.
Moving on, let’s take a look at how Kusturica elevates the outcasts. In both these flicks, “the audience temporarily descends to a whole new world, determined by the handicapped and ruled by the disfigured” (Gocić 47). In most Western media, the handicapped are accepted because they achieved something, they proved through prowess that they are equals. In Kusturica’s films, the handicapped and marginal are accepted just as they are: they don’t need to compensate. In Time of the Gypsies, Ahmed’s dwarf associate Bosnia is a thorough equal of the other criminals, and can use his stature to the advantage of their criminal enterprises. Danira isn’t particularly exceptional in her disability, it doesn’t make her more useful, but she is loved by Perhan just as she is. The film portrays a society where value is not assigned to people as it usually is under capitalism: people are valuable because they are people, outcasts have a position in society because they are outcasts. This concept was totally butchered in a play I recently saw at Williams college, Theatre: A Love Story, but I don’t have time to trash that piece of garbage here (I mean no offense to the people who put on the show, and all offense to the numbskull who wrote it).
In the same vein, Kusturica is obsessed with Gypsies, a group which Europe simultaneously reviles and desires, expels and craves. In the Western stereotype, Gypsies are in and of themselves a perfect image for the carnivalesque: sexually liberated, partying, happy wandering thieves, not beholden to classical European laws or social standards, not forced to settle down. But the reality is that their wandering is more of a trail of tears style forced march than a happy-go-lucky wanderlust, and their lawlessness is not a choice but a necessity. A buddy of mine from Pakistan, who watched Time of the Gypsies with Satya and I, attests that the Romani in his town are wonderful musicians who play and dance all the time, but who live in destitution. The more accurate way Kusturica depicts life through a nuanced “Sevdah Carnivalesque” is the same way he depicts the Gypsies: a dramatic fusion of revelry and suffering. He glorifies them, but he does not fetishize them. He shows their frequent criminality and occasional debauchery, but does not demonize them. They are human. Carmen, the famous opera by Georges Bizet, shares Kusturica’s obsession with the marginal and exotic, but whereas Carmen demonstrates a need to destroy or at least subdue ‘the other’ in the form of the Romani, Time of the Gypsies just wants you to take their culture as it is, warts and all, vibrant yet occasionally violent, and appreciate it (Colmeiro 2).
While Kusturica definitely acts like a good little Bakhtinian and elevates the outcasts, there’s one group he does not seem to do this with: women. I think ‘seem’ is the operative word here. While his women are all either wives, mothers, or whores, there’s some nuance to Kusturica’s misogyny. Just like all the other depictions of outcasts, his stereotypes include aspects which expand the stereotypes beyond the purely disparaging. In Life Is a Miracle, the two major female characters, Luka’s wife Jadranka and Luka’s lover Sabaha, are characterized as being a shrill, crazy bitch, and a kind, pretty, but stupid young woman respectively. Given the over the top caricatures of men that exist in this film, this could be totally fine, but there’s no cool headed, rational woman in the movie: there’s no female Luka. That being said, although you are made to laugh at and jeer at the manic Jadranka, she is also the only person speaking the truth about the impending war throughout the beginning of the film. There’s a very interesting scene when they’re opening up the train line which works really well for talking about the carnivalesque in this movie, but also says something interesting about Kusturica’s thoughts on women. During this ceremony, Jadranka and a male singer perform this song about how it’s a man’s world, but harder than all the things men do is conquering a woman’s heart. The song talks about men as rational and cool headed, yet funnily enough, in the very next scene we see Luka mock Jadranka as irrational for thinking war is on its way. They receive a conscription notice for Miloš, and Luka wants to celebrate. Luka’s friend, the high-ranking soldier Aleksic, assures Luka there will be no war, that it’s being taken care of, and there’s no need to worry. But Jadranka goes nuts, and starts trashing Luka’s railroad model, even destroying the memorial bust of his dad. Luka is still caught up in dreams of a united Bosnia and Serbia— his whole job is to construct a railroad connecting the two nations. Jadranka, however, is adamant that war is on its way, and fears her son could end up just like her father in law—killed in action.
In Time of the Gypsies, we get our female Luka in the form of Perhan’s grandma. She is cool headed and put together, governs her family’s affairs, has power over her sexual encounters, and heals people. She is not a force of unreasonable traditional enforcement – she’s not just an out of touch old woman, as you might expect from a character like her. She’s wise. She stands up to her grandson’s dickishness on his return from Milan, she negotiates eloquently with Ahmed to try to get help for Darina, and even though she helps Uncle Merdzan (despite his gambling and lasciviousness), she is firm with him. Additionally, in this film the decision about marriage between Perhan and Azra isn’t up to men, but argued between Azra’s mom and Perhan’s grandma.
Kusturica is a kind of outcast madman himself, or at least makes himself out to be one (I bet it’s more of an act then he’d like you to believe). He beats up critics, brings gypsy bands to film festivals, hangs around with–and even hires as actors–petty criminals, and generally likes to be controversial and throw his weight around (Gocić 18). Aside from his criminal pals, he frequently casts non-professionals as actors, who play alongside those well renowned in Yugoslavia, bringing his fictional uplifting of the marginal into the real world (Gocić 65). Kusturica embodies the complexity of his work: although he was born a Bosniak (Bosnian Muslim) to a Communist family, he rejected his heritage and Communism, converting to Orthodoxy in 2005. Plenty of (Bosniak) people have condemned him as having abandoned his country to become a Serbian nationalist. He cozied up with the Serb war criminal Slobodan Milošević to make Underground in peace, and though he denounced the siege of Sarajevo (it’s pretty much the bare minimum to not support the indiscriminate shelling of civilians), after the war he once again got in good with the Serbian government, who even helped him build a whole town from scratch to film Life Is a Miracle (Rujevic). His films also get flak for their caricaturization of the Balkans, depicting it as both a joyous and friendly place filled with Gypsy bands and parties and a violent backwater fraught with ethnic tension (Tot). But as I’ve been laying out, caricaturization is the thing Kusturica’s movies do best, and do openly. They’re life, amplified. If you look at something like Life Is a Miracle and think that it’s trying to be an accurate depiction of existence in that time and place, you’re a moron.
Serbian apologist or not, Kusturica makes some damn good movies. They’re not for everyone, but everyone that’s worth knowing can see that they are entertaining, invigorating, and honest reflections of life that fill the soul with a desire to truly live: to break tableware, drink, sing, cry, fuck, laugh, and dance. They’re a turing test for being a palatable person. I plan to show one of these movies to every new person I meet from now on to objectively assess their potential as companions. If they say they don’t like it, I, like the mayor in Life Is a Miracle, will beat them with a goalpost.
Colmeiro, José F. “Exorcising Exoticism: ‘Carmen’ and the Construction of Oriental Spain.” Comparative Literature, vol. 54, no. 2, 2002, pp. 127–44. JSTOR, https://doi.org/10.2307/4122479. Accessed 16 Dec. 2022
Gocić, Goran. Notes from the Underground : the Cinema of Emir Kusturica / Goran Gocić. Wallflower Press, 2001.
Rujević, Nemanja. “Serbia’s Bad-Boy Director Kusturica Celebrates Comeback – DW – 09/08/2016.” Dw.com, Deutsche Welle, 8 Sept. 2016, https://www.dw.com/en/serbias-bad-boy-director-kusturica-celebrates-comeback-in-venice/a-19532104.
“Sevdah.” Congress of Bosniaks of North America, 18 Dec. 2020, https://bosniak.org/sevdah/.
Tot, Fedor. “From Emir to Enemy, and Back Again: My Changing Reactions to Emir Kusturica.” Bright Wall/Dark Room, 1 May 2021, https://www.brightwalldarkroom.com/2018/05/21/from-emir-to-enemy-and-back-again-my-changing-reaction-to-emir-kusturica/.