Ever since the mid-'80s release of Emir Kusturica's first two features Do You Remember Dolly Bell? and When Father Was Away on Business (which was nominated for a Best Foreign Film Oscar) Kusturica has been the most internationally visible figure in Yugoslavian cinema (that includes all the former Yugoslavian states). He is perhaps the most widely known filmmaker ever from that region, topping even his main competition, Dusan Makavejev, whose WR: Mysteries of the Organism and Sweet Movie were succès de scandales in the '70s.
For better or worse, one of the effects of the area's political upheavals has been to thoroughly politicize its film output, so that nearly every Yugoslav film of the decade has been, at least metaphorically, about the horrible situation there. Despite its high spirits, Kusturica's last film, Underground, fits into that category; but it may be his new one, Black Cat, White Cat, that finally breaks the mold.
I say "may" because it's quite possible that Black Cat, White Cat has a political level that isn't readily apparent to Western eyes. For most viewers, it should provide a wildly raucous, picaresque ride leavened with romance, humor, fantasy and (we hate to report) even a fair share of slapstick excrement jokes.
The story takes place among a group of Gypsies living on the banks of the Danube. Zarije Destanov (Zabit Mehmedovski) is a canny old patriarch who can do little to curb the inept schemes of his bumbling son Matko (Bajram Severdzan). Intelligence seems to skip generations in the Destanov clan, so Matko's teenage son, Zare (Florijan Ajdini), also has to look out for Dad.
When Matko isn't keeping an eye on his father, he's pointing both orbs straight at Ida (Branka Katic), the sexy, sassy daughter of the owner of a local diner.
Every time Matko thinks he has a brilliant moneymaking scheme, he ends up deeper and deeper in debt. He finally summons the chutzpah to approach his father's old buddy, ancient crime boss Grga Pitic (Sabri Sulejmani), for a loan. He then makes the even bigger blunder of running his latest scam in partnership with the younger, less honorable gangster Dadan (Srdjan Todorovic), who promptly double-crosses him and takes all the loot. Dadan promises to bail Matko out, but only if Zare will marry Dadan's shrewish, pint-sized sister, Ladybird (Salija Ibraimova).
Other things transpire during Black Cat, White Cat's two-hours-plus length. There are corpses that have to be hidden in the attic, Gypsy mobsters with punkish-green hair running computerized security systems in their dirt-floor compounds, and a pig that for no particular reason spends the entire film eating a car. (Also, there is, for those who are turned on by such things, a chanteuse whose specialty is plucking nails from a post with her buttocks while she's singing.)
There is no dearth of action and circumstance in Black Cat, White Cat. If anything, there is a surfeit. As he has done in the past, Kusturica keeps the movie's energy level at such a high pitch that he risks wearing out his audience before the film ends. It's clear that he's trying to replicate the frenetic activity of Gypsy culture as he sees and hears it. It's just hard to believe that anybody could live life at such a level and survive past the age of 20. (At the screening I attended, one émigré who used to live near a Gypsy village claimed that Kusturica had, if anything, toned things down.)
Despite that reservation, Black Cat, White Cat, with its array of quirky characters and wild events, is sure to goose up the spirits of most filmgoers.
Opens Oct. 1 at the Tivoli.