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Black Cat, White Cat: My All Time Favorite Foreign Film
"This is the beginning of a beautiful friendship,"
Kusturica's complex, darkly comic follow-up to the masterful "UNDERGOUND" centers on the lives of a handful of gypsies and hustlers living on the Danube.
A Yugoslav Romantic comedy film, yes, I know this means subtitles...(sigh), but its well worth it. Directed by Emir Kusturica in 1998. Black Cat, White Cat won the Silver Lion for Best Direction at the Venice Film Festival. The literal translation of the title is actually "Black Cat, White Tomcat". The movie characters speak in Romani, Serbian, and Bulgarian - frequently switching among them. Oh, sure now you are saying, "Thank God for subtitles."
There are three main parts to this surreal slapstick. One part romantic comedy, Black Cat, White Cat tells the story of two extended gypsy families living on the Danube River. The fathers of the families, Grga Pitic (Sabri Sulejmani) and Zarije Destanov (Zabit Mehmedovski) are cigar-smoking, hooch-swilling old coots, each with a few gold teeth left. Their families are involved in gypsy business, which seems to involve
1) bartering with the Russians who come up the river on trading vessels
2) stealing everything else they can get their hands on.
Zarje's son Matko (Barjam Severdzan) is not only a low-life but he's bad at it. When Matko attempts to steal several oil tanker cars from a railroad he is double-crossed by Grga's son Dadan (Surdan Todovoric) a rich, fun-living, drug-snorting gangster type who has a harem, juggles grenades and cheats at cards. However, Dadan double-crosses him and glitches up the deal by giving Matko a drink that is drugged, and carrying out the job while Matko is unconscious, which means that Matko owes Dadan a great deal of cash.
Matko cannot afford to pay, so Dadan makes him a deal. Dadan will wipe the slate clean of the debt, if Zare will marry Afrodita, Dadan's midget sister whom he desperately wants married off. However, Zare is in love with Ida, a barmaid who works in an establishment run by her Roma grandmother Sujka, and Afrodita is waiting for the man of her dreams.
Dadan convinces Afrodita into marrying by dunking her in a well. Zare first learns of the scheme to marry him off from Ida, who has overheard Dadan and Matko plotting it in the restaurant where she works. The mayhem involves, everything from shrieking gypsies, crooked Yugoslavs, an Uzi wedding, to two dead grandpas who aren't dead after all (they are just drunk.). Who Matko and Zare hide the bodies in the attic, packed in ice.
However, the two corpses soon both come back to life. They are surprised to find themselves together, as they had not seen each other for 25 years and each had thought the other was dead. Have I lost you yet?
In the end the good guy gets the money, the nail comes out of the log, and everyone wins and goes home happy. I know... where did all that as all come from? All this is witnessed, by a black cat and a white cat.
There are many repeated sight gags throughout the film. Like a pig, that is devouring a rusty old Trabant, and of course the appearance of the two title characters....the cats (a black one and a white one), who end up as the only witnesses to Zare and Ida's wedding, inwhich Zare grabs the wedding official at gunpoint and orders him to officate his marriage with his sweetheart, Ida.
Also, there is Grga Pitić obsession with the last line in the film Casablanca, "this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship," which he says to Zarije at the end, looking at Matko washing Dadan. As Zare and Ida sail off together on a riverboat with a fistful of cash stashed in Zare's grandfather's accordion, after receiving the blessing of their respective grandparents and again, witnessed by a black cat and a white cat
Director Emir Kusturica's gypsies don't seem to view the world as other people do. Kusturica, a Bosnian from Sarajevo, first set out to make a documentary about gypsy music. But the more he immersed himself in the world of his subjects, the more a new story emerged.
As a result Black Cat, White Cat has not only one of the strangest plot stories and larger-than-life characters, but beautifully recorded gypsy violin, accordion and guitar music that will have you dancing.
Dadan, played by Todovoric, is over the top and brilliant. He steals the scenes he is in with his antics. He snorts cocaine out of a crucifix, he juggles hand grenades at the wedding, and eventually does a memorable dive into a river of...well let's just say, it's what is at the bottom of an outhouse. His harem and cronies desert him, and as he tries to clean himself off on a goose. Yes, a goose.
Also excellent is Grga Vellki (Jas'ar Destani), a huge-moustached gypsy in a flamenco hat, whose insistence on waiting to marry until he finds love at first sight finally pays off...I won't spoil with whom he finds true love.
The romantic angle involves the grandchildren of the two old gypsies. Zarije's grandson Zare is given Grga Pitic's grand-daughter, Afrodita in an arranged marriage, but the two have different ideas. Zare loves Ida, and Afrodita is about to fall in love with Grga Vellki....ooops spoiled it after all. The grandchildren are the only innocents in the movie. We know they will end up together and we can't wait for it to happen, especially after a lovely, romantic love scene where Zare and Ida frolic in a field of sunflowers.
In the end the two families patch up their feuds, and love conquers all, at least for the moment. It would be wise, however, not to look too carefully at the plot. There are a few holes you could drive a caravan through. If it doesn't make sense that the two grandfathers could continue to fake their own deaths even when huge chunks of ice are being applied to their groins, so be it.
None of these questionable details make the slightest difference. Black Cat, White Cat is a classically funny movie,
There are so many more bright moments, so many twists, details and laughs it's hard to keep track of everything that in happening.