Black Cat White Cat

Black Cat, White Cat (Crna macka, beli macka) (1998)

Black Cat, White Cat (Crna macka, beli macka) first published by Film4

Summary: Chaos visits a gunshot wedding in a small Balkan village full of gangsters, cheats and liars. Emir Kusturica directs this carnivalesque romantic comedy.

Review: “Weddings and funerals don’t mix”, declares the incompetent blackmarketeer Matko (Bajram Severdzan) in Black Cat, White Cat (Crna macka, beli macka). And yet, during the extended wedding party sequence that makes up most of the film’s second hour, death is (literally) never far away, as the bodies of two old men are kept on ice in the attic upstairs. Even the junk-addled official who presides over the final vows has mistakenly bought along “the register of deaths, not marriages.” For in Emir Kusturica’s farcical fairy tale of family, fraud, fate and friendship, it turns out that marriage and death are just one of a number of unlikely pairings that make up the film’s carnivalesque absurdity. 

Young Zare Destanov (Florijan Ajdini) has his eye on the free-spirited waitress Ida (Branka Katic), but after his father Matko is cheated in one of his scams by the powerful gangster Dadan (Srdan Todorovic), Zare finds himself about to be married off to Dadan’s diminutive sister instead as part of a deal to settle the family’s huge debts. It seems that only grandpa Zarije Destanov (Zabit Memedov) and his old friend Grga Pitic (Sabri Sulejmani) can save the day, and these two irrepressible patriarchs prove not only to be a match for all the other scoundrels, swindlers and liars around them, but also more than capable of cheating death itself.

One person in Black Cat, White Cat is described as a “six-foot giant with hands like shovels”, another as a “midget” just over a metre high; and while these may be exaggerations, all the film’s characters are larger-than-life grotesques, whether it is the criminal who keeps cocaine hidden in a crucifix and likes to juggle hand grenades, the hard-drinking grandfather who is followed everywhere by a gypsy brass band, the near-blind godfather who endlessly rewatches the closing scenes of Casablanca (1942), or the chanteuse with the Leningrad Cowboy quiff whose act climaxes when she extracts a nail from a wooden plank using only her ample behind. For in the little Romani village of Surduk on the bank of the Danube, exuberance, hyperbole and excess are a way of life, and it is difficult to know where the locals’ tall tales end and reality begins, or even where the boundary lies between love and hate, life and death. 

Two hours may sound overlong for what is essentially a spirited romantic comedy, but the lavish brand of magical realism that Kusturica has made his own in films like Time of the Gypsies (1988) and Underground (1995) here ensures that each and every scene is richly saturated with colour, noise and incident – and with enough unhinged vitality to get everybody smiling. It is as though Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994) had been reimagined by Fellini with a cast of crazy Balkan rogues (played mostly by non-professional Romani actors) and a background chorus of farmyard animals. Watching Black Cat, White Cat is like gatecrashing a wild party – even if it is never quite clear who or what (apart from life itself) is being celebrated. Cinema is seldom so hyperactively busy, deliriously charming or surreally humane. 

Strap: Emir Kusturica’s magical realist Roman(t)i(c) comedy stages a parochial marriage of the roguish, the grotesque and the unhinged

Anton Bitel