Review: ‘Black Cat, White Cat’

"Black Cat, White Cat," Bosnian-born filmmaker Emir Kusturica's long-delayed and much- anticipated followup to his 1995 Cannes Palme d'Or winner, the controversial "Underground," emerges as a colorful, frenetic mixture of slapstick and folklore that stands a good chance of delighting arthouse audiences the world over.

“Black Cat, White Cat,” Bosnian-born filmmaker Emir Kusturica’s long-delayed and much- anticipated followup to his 1995 Cannes Palme d’Or winner, the controversial “Underground,” emerges as a colorful, frenetic mixture of slapstick and folklore that stands a good chance of delighting arthouse audiences the world over. There’s hardly a hint of Balkan politics in this prodigiously well-made, frantically paced comedy, which is filled to the brim with colorful characters involved in sometimes familiar but always engaging situations.

The people here, like those in Kusturica’s 1989 Cannes prize winner, “Time of the Gypsies,” are Gypsies who live on the banks of the Danube river. These cheerful outcasts, who inhabit roughly constructed, semi-permanent dwellings, make a living via all kinds of skullduggery, and their currency of choice is the Deutsche mark. Kusturica clearly adores these larger-than-life characters, and his film is filled with wonderfully expressive faces and personalities.

Pic takes a while establishing the many characters and the setup. Grga Pitic (Sabri Sulejman), garbage dump godfather, and Zarije (Zabit Memedov), cement works czar, are both in their 80s; they’re old and dear friends, though they haven’t seen each other in 25 years. When Zarije’s good-for-nothing son, Matko (Bajram Severdzan), becomes involved in the heist of a train carrying valuable fuel, he needs money to finance the hijack; unable to seek help from his father, he goes to Grga for help.

But Matko is double-crossed by his partner, Dadan Karambolo (Srdan Todorovic), the manic, coke-snorting boss of the Gypsy gangsters (referred to disdainfully by one character as a “businessman patriot.”). Dadan demands compensation from the hapless Matko — he orders that Matko’s son, Zare (Florijan Ajdini), marry Dadan’s vertically challenged sister, Afrodita (Salija Ibraimova). The trouble is, Zare is in love with Ida (Branka Katic), a comely barmaid, while Afrodita, who has dreams of marrying a man who’ll sweep her off her little feet, is also unenthusiastic about the proposed nuptials.

The film builds to the problem-prone wedding and its aftermath. Matters are further complicated by the sud-den death of Zarije, which Zare believes is cause enough to postpone the ceremony; but Dadan won’t hear of it, and insists the old man’s body be hidden away and his death not revealed until Zare and Afrodita are safely spliced. The corpse in the attic — eventually there are two — provides rich material for the farcical comedy so adroitly staged in the film.

The wedding itself is pic’s hilarious center, but there are plenty of laughs in the final stretches of the film, in which all ends so well that Kusturica is able to conclude the film with the title “Happy End.”

The film certainly is happy, with its cheerfully lowbrow jokes about excrement, sex and death and with its well-timed pratfalls and mishaps. A running gag has grandfather Zarije watching the final sequence from “Casablanca” over and over; in a sense, the film is about a beautiful friendship formed by a seemingly mismatched pair.

It may be possible to read into this lighthearted fare a darker message about feuding families, friends and neighbors, but most audiences will probably forget politics altogether and simply enjoy the characters and their misadventures.

In a cast that includes many nonprofessionals, the standout is the hilariously funny Todorovic (from “Underground”), who is energy personified as the manic Dadan; the actor dominates the film whenever he’s onscreen. But every member of the cast works perfectly in this colorful ensemble piece.

Kusturica has made his funniest film with this crowd-pleaser, and even includes a presumably deliberate reference to one of the cinema’s great directors of cynical comedies, Billy Wilder, when Ida tells her maladroit lover, “Kiss me, stupid.”

Pic’s production was interrupted by bad weather, and two cinematographers, Thierry Arbogast and Michel Amathieu, are credited; their work melds seamlessly.

A rousing soundtrack of Gypsy songs and music helps the fun along, and though editor Svetolik Mica Zajc could, perhaps, have clipped pic to less than two hours, this is a minor flaw in an otherwise buoyant entertainment.

The title doesn’t appear onscreen in words; instead, line drawings of the felines in question provide the film’s only identification.

Black Cat, White Cat

Production

An October Films (in U.S.)/Goldwyn Films release of a Ciby 2000 (Paris)/Pandora Film (Frankfurt)/Komuna Film (Belgrade) co-production. Produced by Karl Baumgartner. Executive producer, Moksa Catovic. Co-producer, Marina Girard. Directed by Emir Kusturica. Screenplay, Gordan Mihic, Kusturica.

Crew

Camera (color), Thierry Arbogast; additional camera, Michel Amathieu; editor, Svetolik Mica Zajc; music, D. Nele Karajilic, Vajislav Aralica, Dejo Sparavalo; production designer, Milenko Jeremic; costume designer, Nebojsa Lipanovic; sound (Dolby digital), Nenad Vukadinovic. Reviewed at Venice Film Festival (competing), Sept. 10, 1998. (Also in New York Film Festival.) Running time: 129 MIN.

With

Matko Destanov - Bajram Severdzan Zare Destanov - Florijan Ajdini Afrodita - Salija Ibraimova Ida - Branka Katic Dadan Karambolo - Srdan Todorovic Zarije Destanov - Zabit Memedov Grga Pitic - Sabri Sulejman Grga Veliki - Jasar Destani Uncle Sujka - Ljubica Adzovic Registry Officer - Predrag Miki Manojlovic Priest - Predrag Pepi Lakovic Bulgarian Customs Officer - Stojan Sotirov (Serbo-Croatian dialogue)
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