It's not surprising that master director Emir Kusturica, from a former Yugoslav republic, would seek a change of pace after his 1995 Cannes prizewinner, "Underground," a controversial, bleakly absurdist epic take on half a century of Balkan turmoil. He's followed it up with a raucous, knockabout comedy, "Black Cat, White Cat," a paean to love, freedom and friendship, which won Kusturica a Silver Lion at Venice for his direction.
Screenwriter Gordan Mihic, who co-wrote Kusturica's memorable "Time of the Gypsies" a decade ago, persuaded Kusturica to do a documentary on musicians inspired by those they had worked with in "Gypsies."
The idea was to follow band members as they played at a wedding, but luckily for us, Kusturica and Mihic couldn't resist cooking up a story instead. "Black Cat, White Cat" has all the Gypsy music you could possibly want plus a dizzyingly inspired comic plot that does in fact culminate in a wedding, an event struck with mayhem.
Along the Danube in a beautiful, wide-open countryside, a feckless petty crook named Matko (Bajram Severdzan, also known as Doctor Kolja) lives in a picturesque houseboat in a Gypsy community with his father, Zarije (Zabit Mehmedovski), and 17-year-old son Zare (Florijan Ajdini). The mournful-looking Matko's latest scheme involves stealing a trainload of gasoline that's being shipped from Jordan.
Sure enough, Matko is double-crossed, which puts him at the mercy of his backer, the exuberant gangster Dadan (Srdan Todorovic), a good-looking guy who dresses '70s Vegas-style--sideburns, open shirt, miles of gold chain--including one from which is suspended a thick cross containing the cocaine he sniffs so frequently. Dadan favors stretch limousines and at least four sexy ladies to do his bidding at the snap of his fingers; he lives with his four unmarried sisters in an old palace he's remodeling.
Matko can clear his debt by marrying off Zare to one of Dadan's sisters. But Zare has just fallen for blond, free-spirited Ida (Branka Katic), the granddaughter of a hearty riverside cafe proprietor (who's eager to sell Ida to Dadan).
Also getting into the act is Zarije's old pal Grga Pitic (Sabri Sulejmani), a rich and shady entrepreneur who gets around in Rube Goldberg-like vehicles and who loves to play his "Casablanca" video over and over. (There's also a nod to Billy Wilder, when Ida orders Zare: "Kiss me, stupid.") All of this offers Kusturica plenty of opportunity to indulge in his near-surreal sense of humor, which here has the lightheartedness of his "Arizona Dream."
Two hours and nine minutes is an awfully long running time for a comedy, but because "Black Cat, White Cat" has such a beguiling rambling shaggy dog-story quality, it gets away with it better than most over-long movies.
Kusturica works marvels with his endlessly amusing cast, and his film has an appealingly free and easy tone. "Black Cat, White Cat," by the way, takes its title from a pair of amorous felines whose antics have a fateful consequence.
* MPAA rating: R, for strong language, drug use and some violence. Times guidelines: language, adult themes and situations.
'Black Cat, White Cat'
Bajram Severdzan/Doctor Kolja: Matko Destanov
Florijan Ajdini: Zare Destanov
Branka Katic: Ida
Srdan Todorovic: Dadan
A USA Films release of an October Films presentation of a co-production of CIBY 2000/Pandora Film/Komuna Film. Director Emir Kusturica. Producer Karl Baumgartner. Executive producer Maksa C'atovic. Screenplay by Gordan Mihic, Kusturica. Cinematographer Thierry Arbogast. Editor-sound designer Svetolik Mica Zajc. Music Dr. Nelle Karajlic, Voja Aralica, Dejan Sparavalo, Kusturica. Costumes Nebojs'a Lipanpvic. Production designer Milenko Jeremic Paino. In Serbo-Croatian and Romany, with English subtitles. Running time: 2 hours, 9 minutes.
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