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Black Cat, White Cat

A World of Their Own

By Vladimir Zelevinsky

Directed by Emir Kusturica

Written by Emir Kusturica and Gordan Mihic

With Bajram Severdzan, Srdjan Todorovic, Branka Katic, Florijan Ajdini, Sabri Sulejman, Jasar Destani, Salija Ibraimova

It’s always a hard act to follow up on a masterpiece; most of such follow-ups are bound to feel like slight disappointments, merely because of the inherent comparison with their predecessors. One way to avoid this is to make a film totally unlike the previous one, and that’s what Emir Kusturica does with Black Cat, White Cat -- his first movie since his gargantuan masterpiece, the Cannes Grand Prize winner Underground. Black Cat, White Cat is not a masterpiece, for sure -- but it feels as wildly fresh and original as just about anything we saw this year.

The cinematic equivalent of a wild party -- loud, boisterous, violent, and charming -- Black Cat, White Cat is a snapshot of gypsy life. Not stereotypical gypsies, but settled-down gypsies: the people living on the shores of the beautiful blue Danube, forming a civilization of their own, a complete microcosm.

There’s one guy who is constantly trying for various mildly illegal get-rich-quick schemes, mostly involving stealing something and bartering it afterwards; there’s his son, seventeen years old and in love with a twenty-five year-old waitress; there’s a professional mobster, cruising around with his pals and half a dozen mistresses; there’s a four foot tall feisty beauty, who is searching for true love at first sight; there’s an old crime lord, gold-toothed and cackling; and there are animals: flocks of geese flapping around, an obese pig munching on an abandoned car, and a feline couple. By the way, while the title never really appears on the screen (the title card is just a cute pictogram of two cats), in Serbo-Croatian this movie is referred to as Crna Macka, Beli Macor, thus distinguishing the cats’ genders and adding another pair of lovers to all the mismatched couples.

And so, five or six plots run through Black Cat, White Cat -- criminal dealings, romance, revenge, double- and triple-crossings, shotgun weddings, and True Love Triumphant. The overall narrative ambience is vaguely Fellini-like in its mixture of affection and satire (one scene almost directly mirrors Amarcord), but Kusturica put his unmistakable imprint on every single shot of this film.

This mark is his own thoroughly distinct style, not as much visual (although many shots are powerfully idiosyncratic) as narrative-wise. To put it simply, something happens in just about every single shot, and the set is filled with delightful throwaway bits. Another trademark is the inseparable intertwining of comedy and tragedy, with humor and violence being constantly present, either directly or as a possible outcome of every situation.

Black Cat, White Cat is still no Underground. While the previous film was an ingenious political allegory, actually explaining what is going on in Balkans, this one doesn’t have such ambitions. As a matter of fact, the director went on record saying he wanted to make a completely apolitical movie. Whether Kusturica really meant it or not, he didn’t quite succeed in this, especially considering one of the dictionary definitions of politics as “the total complex of relations between people living in society” (Merriam-Webster). The subtext of Black Cat, White Cat lies precisely at this borderline between politics and anthropology, describing (as opposed to explaining) in astonishing detail the way this world exists.

And it exists like a scavenger, building itself from the stuff discarded by other civilizations, whether it’s material (Russian hardware and gasoline) or cultural (American pop songs and movies).

Still, for all its verve, Black Cat, White Cat exists solely in the world it creates.

But most of these realizations come after the movie, during the film it’s hard to take one’s eyes (or, for that matter, ears: the soundtrack is irresistible) off the screen. There’s so much going on. One sequence in particular (a love scene in a field, amid blooming sunflowers) happens to be just perfect.