Geese, marriages and death
A region 2 DVD review of BLACK CAT, WHITE CAT / CRNA MACKA, BELI MACOR by Slarek
 

The films of Yugoslav director Emir Kusturica have tended to divide opinion over the years, with his 1995 Underground annoying almost as many people as it delighted, prompting attacks on the film's politics from some quarters and complaints about its near to three-hour length and relentlessly noisy exuberance from others. Similar grumbles were heard on the release of his more recent and not quite as lengthy Life is a Miracle, with more than one reviewer expressing their exasperation at the number of shots that were decorated with flying chickens and a soundtrack over-populated with bouncy gypsy tunes. If you are of this view, then Black Cat, White Cat [Crna macka, beli macor] will provide little relief – the pace is manic, the music is as hyper as ever, and while there are no chickens, there are plenty of geese strategically placed to scatter wildly as characters stumble through their midst. If, however, you warm to the Kusturica approach, there is a strong likelihood that you'll react with considerable delight, and for newcomers to the director's work I can think of no more enjoyable an introduction to his cheerfully energetic style.

Set in a Yugoslav gypsy community on the banks of the Danube, the story centres on luckless hustler Matko, who establishes his standing early on by making a deal with a local boatman for a washing machine and then immediately falling into the river with it. He hopes to make a killing on a big deal involving a trainload of fuel, and to secure funding for the project he approaches ageing local gang boss Grga, then old acquaintance and flashy gangster Dandan, who helps him with the cash and then secretly rips him off. Threatening dire consequences if the money is not instantly repaid, Dandan offers to write off the debt if Matko's 17-year-old son Zare agrees to marry the mobster's diminutive and bad tempered sister Afrodita. Matko agrees to the deal but Zare is dismayed, having already set his his heart on the beautiful but tomboyish Ida, and Afrodita is determined to wait for the man of her dreams.

If you're expecting politically slanted meditation on gypsy life then you've come to the wrong place – Black Cat, White Cat is a boisterous romp, a farcical comedy of love, luck and community whose pace is rarely less than furious and whose cast perform as if they've all taken vast quantities of amphetamine sulphate. Kusturica enhances this sense of hyperactivity with an editing speed and set decoration that crams scenes with sometimes insane levels of oddball detail, plus a score that flits merrily between semi-comical rock and octane-fuelled jigs by the director's own No Smoking Orchestra travelling gypsy band.

The film revels in the grotesque, with half of the cast sporting spectacularly malformed, gold-capped teeth and missing no opportunity to flash a wide smile, and every location is a marvel of barmy production design. This is at once both expressionistic and yet strangely authentic, a reflection of the chaotic nature of changing times in Eastern Europe, where newer technology sits almost anachronistically alongside props and costumes from a pre-industrial age. This clash of the traditional and the modern is reflected in the attitudes of the characters, the elders insisting on marriage for its own sake ("I'm telling you one last time," Grga tells his lanky, unmarried son during a period of ill health, "find yourself a wife. Now take me to hospital to recover – I'll come out for your wedding"), while the younger generation, to the chagrin of their parents, demand that marriage be for love.

Kusturica presents this society as relentlessly lively and bristling with possibility, albeit one dominated by organised crime. Even this element is presented in such cheerful fashion that a casual killing of a police official becomes the subject for farce when his body is hung on a raised jib, an open umbrella in one hand and Matko's briefcase in the other, which its hapless owner indulges in a series of acrobatic pratfalls in a desperate attempt to retrieve. This stream of black farce is taken a step further with Matko and Zare's frantic attempts to conceal and preserve the body of a departed relative by dragging him up to the attic and binding a huge lump of ice to his chest, ice that melts and drips through the ceiling onto the bemused but still energetically coked-up Dandan.

The film finds humour in even the darkest situations and cheerfully celebrates the simple joys of everyday existence, however peculiar they may prove to be. The carefree lunacy with which the narrative unfolds is matched step for step by a dizzying patchwork of sometimes surrealistic background and incidental detail that proves one of the film's principal pleasures. It brings a delight to every scene and infuses the film as a whole with an overpowering exuberance that should put a smile on the face of all but the most world-weary viewer. After all, how often would you expect to see in one film a Romany band tied halfway up two trees, a gangster cheerfully juggling hand grenades, a pig devouring a car, a bride making her escape under a hollowed-out tree stump, and a large female singer pulling a six-inch nail from a wooden pole by clenching it between her buttocks?

sound and vision

Framed aproximately 1.80:1 and anamorphically enhanced, this is for the most part a fine transfer, with detail levels and contrast very good – colours are not quite true to life, but this could be deliberate and it's a long time since I saw it at the cinema, so comparisons are hard to make. Occasionally there is some minor frame jitter, but this rarely gets in the way, and with the breeziness of the camerawork you'd be hard pushed to spot it most of the time. This is another transfer licensed by Artificial Eye from MK2 in France, and on the whole it's a very good one.

The Dolby 2.0 stereo soundtrack is bright and clear and generally serves the film rather well, with the music in particular sounding good. Just occasionally it cries out for a 5.1 track to more fully immerse us in the noise and music of the surroundings, but for the most part this will do well enough.

extra features

Not much here. The Theatrical Trailer (1:35) looks to be the one for the film's US release, with the expectedly cheesy voice-over. The Emir Kusturica Biography and Filmography is reasonably well detailed, but the filmography is restricted to his notable feature work only.

summary

There will be some who mourn the lack of Underground's socio-political element and others for whom the assault of incident, imagery and sound will prove exhausting, but speaking personally I find Black Cat, White Cat so energetic, so good natured and so consistently inventive and entertaining that I have no problems at all wholeheartedly recommending it. Artificial Eye's DVD is light on extras but is otherwise a sound enough job, and its long-awaited release is welcomed in this particular quarter.

Black Cat, White Cat
Crna macka, beli macor

France / Germany / Federal Republic of Yugoslavia
124 mins
director
Emir Kusturica
starring
Bajram Severdzan
Srdjan Todorovic
Branka Katic
Florijan Ajdini
Ljubica Adzovic
Zabit Memedov
Sabri Sulejmani
Jasar Destani

DVD details
region 2
video
1.80:1 anamorphic
sound
Dolby stereo 2.0
languages
Serbo-Croat
subtitles
English
extras
Trailer
Director biography and filmography
distributor
Artificial Eye
review posted
2 June 2006

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