"Black Cat, White Cat"

A Felliniesque farce boasts the many talents of Emir Kusturica, a director still making ambitious, individualistic movies like they matter.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Executive Editor

Published September 23, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

We all know that the great days of European art cinema are behind us, right? Its heroes are dead, like Fellini and Truffaut; retired, like Bergman; or drifting more or less rapidly into quirky irrelevance, like Godard and Wenders. Well, somebody forgot to tell Emir Kusturica, who's out there on the eastern fringe of Europe, like his Greek counterpart Theo Angelopoulos ("Ulysses' Gaze"), still making ambitious individual films as if they mattered. "Black Cat, White Cat," his ebullient farce set among the Gypsies and gangsters who roam a dilapidated stretch of the Danube, is a reckless, explosive production that does everything the movies have forgotten how to do. When art houses are filled with tepidly tasteful, multinational crapola like "The Red Violin," it's thrilling to see something this profane, mythic and, most of all, not bored with life, love and the possibilities of cinema.

"Black Cat, White Cat" has a manic, carnivalesque style that undoubtedly isn't for everyone. This is an outdoor summer romp, co-written by Kusturica and veteran Yugoslav screenwriter Gordan Mihic and exuberantly photographed by French cinematographer Thierry Arbogast (best known for his work with Andri Tichini and Luc Besson). It's a movie in which death is treated as a minor (and temporary) inconvenience, in which we see a pig eat a car, a recalcitrant bride thrown down a well and a woman remove a nail from a plank in a most unusual manner. Anybody who still thinks narrative innovation is important should go elsewhere: This story is about as newfangled as Beaumarchais' "Marriage of Figaro," and just about as cheeky. As this convoluted tale winds to a close, young love is celebrated, the wicked are punished and the innocent, if not precisely the virtuous (since nearly everyone in this film is a shameless con artist), are rewarded. Then, as if to make sure we didn't miss it, the words "HAPPY END" are projected on the screen.

This is something of a new direction for Kusturica, whose earlier films, including "Time of the Gypsies" and the Balkan war epic "Underground," have been, for all their adventurous beauty, often tragic and distinctively melancholy in tone. But who can really blame a filmmaker from Sarajevo if, after all the devastation wrought in the former Yugoslavia over the last decade, he wants to make a movie about life, rather than death, in the Balkans? Kusturica, who identifies himself as Bosnian, was accused by some French leftists of harboring pro-Serbian tendencies in "Underground" (1995), and I can imagine sober-sided critics telling us that "Black Cat, White Cat" trivializes violence.

Well, duh. In one scene, Ida (Branka Katic), our saucy tomboy inginue, pulls out a rifle and begins a sniper attack on a houseboat -- willfully destroying a crotchety neighbor's flowerpots. In another, an accused war criminal flings live grenades around at a wedding, somehow failing to injure anybody. Kusturica portrays life on the Danube as gritty, unforgiving and driven by a fully contemporary materialism, but he's also a filmmaker who believes that realism has its limits. Enormous flocks of geese seem to flow through every scene, like the human unconscious or the Danube itself; and a pack of Gypsy musicians raucously patrols the background, at one point appearing several feet off the ground, lashed to tree trunks for no apparent reason.

Like most Americans, I've never been to any of the former Yugoslav republics, but Kusturica's portrayal of his homeland as a social and architectural ruin, where everything is either falling apart or overbuilt in misbegotten grandiosity, is certainly convincing. One of the film's feudal patriarchs, the garrulous, almost toothless Uncle Grga (Sabri Sulejmani, a retired shoeshine man in real life) patrols his high-tech armed compound in a homemade motorized wheelchair equipped with an oxygen tank and a TV set, on which he watches "Casablanca" over and over again. Dadan (Srdan Todorovic), an emotionally overwrought gangster and accused war criminal, rides around in a not-quite-new American limousine with a coterie of gangly would-be models, snorting cocaine out of the enormous silver crucifix he wears around his neck. The sun-browned Ida works at a decrepit riverside resort where she has to water the telephone pole when her scheming grandmother wants to make a call.

At the center of this maelstrom is the hapless Matko (Bajram Severdzan, a Gypsy entertainer also known as Doctor Kolja), a likable middle-aged beanpole who lacks the brains and viciousness to be a true hustler. Concocting an idiotic scheme to hijack a trainload of gasoline, Matko is effortlessly swindled by Dadan, losing Uncle Grga's factory and getting an accomplice killed in the bargain. (Death may be seen as ridiculous in "Black Cat, White Cat," but it is never far away, and Kusturica's comedy is at its most grim here.) To pay his enormous debt to Dadan and avoid being killed himself, Matko must surrender his teenage son, Zare (Florijan Ajdini, one of the film's few professional actors), to be married off to Dadan's unwed firebrand sister, Afrodita (Salija Ibraimova), who is described somewhat unfairly as "a horrible, grouchy midget." But the shy, slyly handsome Zare has found true love with the lissome Ida -- whose grandmother has in turn sold her to Dadan -- and we are in desperate need of a comic reordering of the film's universe that will set everything to rights.

We get one, of course. Restored to health by the powers of Gypsy music, Matko's ailing father, Zarije (Zabit Mehmedovski), an old friend and rival of Grga, leaps from his hospital bed to intervene. Amid the explosions, wheelchair-and-goat chase sequences and corpse storage problems that follow, Afrodita flees her own wedding to find true love, the two patriarchs form a mock-supernatural alliance and Dadan finally gets his highly satisfying comeuppance. Kusturica strikes a half-ironic tone throughout this overcrowded, cacophonous masterpiece that's almost impossible to categorize. In the tradition of Eastern European film, he's satirizing the conventions of rural magic realism at least as much as he's embracing them. But there's nothing cynical or cold-hearted about "Black Cat, White Cat." Like the waves of geese, pigs, goats, dogs and cats that sometimes threaten to overwhelm the human characters, it is recklessly, indescribably alive.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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