Black Cat White Cat

(Cma macka, beli macor, Emir Kusturica, France/Germany/Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, 1998)


“Music! Aggression!” This cry sets the good times rolling in Black Cat White Cat. And it sums up the kind of joy – ecstatic, violent, brazen – which veritably pours out of the films of Emir Kusturica (Underground [1995], Time of the Gypsies [1989], Arizona Dream [1993]).

George Miller once rightly compared his first Mad Max (1979) film to a rock opera. But it is Kusturica (with or without his own band) who deserves to be honoured as cinema’s greatest rocker. The energy of his movies is so boundless it seems to mock we poor fools who must stay seated throughout the screening.

After the political controversy which bruised the director in the wake of Underground (which remains his masterpiece), Kusturica took a little time off to rethink his plan of attack. Black Cat White Cat is the simpler, freer, more mellow result – a raucous comedy, a gypsy melodrama, and a beautiful, spirited fairy tale.

Synopsis is futile. Suffice to say, it is about two wealthy, powerful men, Graga (Jasar Destani) and Zarije (Zabit Mehmedovski), at the twilight of their long lives – and the problems and dramas that arise from the need to settle some debts and marry off a few troublesome family members.

Kusturica may have withdrawn somewhat from the arena of contentious social comment, but he again shows the way of the world in his familiar, acidic fashion. Corruption, graft and nepotism rule. Fortunately, despotic schemes are always undone by the lusts and errors, the rages and sentimentalities, of unbridled human nature. The film is a hymn to the messy realities of love and family.

Kusturica’s movies are easily the most exuberant and outrageous in current world cinema. His artistic sensibility suggests an unholy union of Australian theatre director Barrie Kosky, American rocker Little Richard and British comic Benny Hill. In Black Cat White Cat, a torrent of unearthly, exaggerated images keeps pace with a sprawling, complex plot and vaudeville-style vulgarity to boggle the mind.

The relentlessly burlesque nature of proceedings in Black Cat White Cat turns so-called histrionic acting – where every gesture sends an elaborate nudge-wink to the audience – into a major art form. The earth mother Ljubica Adzovic, unforgettable from Time of the Gypsies, here brings the house down with a mere raise of her eyebrow or a heave of her bosom.

Like David Cronenberg, Kusturica shapes his movies out of a unique, poetic vision. The same basic elements of this vision recur from film to film: crazy inventions, animals everywhere, endless streams of alcohol, money, guns, music and dance. As in Underground (which has been re-released in an almost six-hour Director’s Cut), a wedding celebration takes centre stage in the plot – although, twice over, it threatens to become a funeral.

There are some who find Black Cat White Cat a tired anthology of the director’s greatest hits. It is, unashamedly, Kusturica’s gift to his loyal fans, a celebration of everything that defines his kind of cinema. As one such fan, I can only be grateful for this overwhelming experience.

It took a while for the film to hit Australian screens, but the delay served it well. Kusturica’s movies always feel like wild parties poised at the brink of an apocalypse – uninhibited, devil-may-care, driven, but also a little sad and suicidal. So what better way to greet the new millennium than with Black Cat White Cat? It’s the party that Prince once sang about – a party like it’s 1999.

© Adrian Martin October 1999

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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