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Sunday, 24 August 2008

Black Cat, White Cat (1998)

Matko Destanov is a few sandwiches short of a picnic. He's a small scale hustler, living in a rundown wooden shack on the banks of the Danube with his son, Zare. We first meet him lying in a hammock playing cards against himself while a rat powers a huge fan above him via some cleverly contrived contraption. What's most amazing is that the insane lunacy that surrounds these scenes doesn't dissipate as the film progresses. Writer/director Emir Kustarica has a talent for the quirky, the bizarre and the eye opening and he knows how to fashion it all into a story.

Destanov believes that he's onto some infallible deal involving a train full of petrol that will net him a serious amount of money, but like all the deals he gets involved with, it doesn't turn out quite how he expects and he gets ripped off royally by a friend and collaborator. He's been given a large sum of money from Grga Pitic, a gangster friend of his father, but he gets the rest from another gangster, a coke snorting poser and apparently a war criminal called Dadan Karambolo, who's the one he gets ripped off by.

You wouldn't guess from the above paragraph that this is a comedy but it's riotous one that only partially relies on characters like Black Obelisk, a statuesque singer whose party trick is to pull nails out of a plank of wood using only her ass. What would surprise even further is that this is really a love story, in fact a few love stories all mixed up together. We have a pair of young lovers: Zare and Ida, the granddaughter of the local innkeeper, who share memorable romance scenes in the middle of huge fields of sunflowers or in tubes in the river Danube, but they're not the ones getting married.

The whole train ripoff was set up purely so that Destanov could be forced to marry Zare off to Karambolo's short sister, Afrodita. Zare or Ida don't want this, of course, but neither does Afrodita, as she's waiting for her true love. Also waiting for his true love is Grga Pitic's grandson, who Pitic wants to find a wife. He's inspired by his grandfather whose true love was his midget fifth wife. You can see where this really should be going, but there's a major problem. Destanov's father and Grga Pitic could fix everything, but he can't allow them to meet because he's told each of them that the other is dead.

This whole film is hilarious and, to my eyes unlike anything I've ever seen before. There are bad teeth, geese and bizarre contraptions everywhere. The only thing more prominent is the gypsy music, lots of accordions and horns, drums and violins, and plenty of jew's harp. The characters are all vivid and wild and there isn't a dull moment. In fact almost every frame has a lot more going on in it than what's intended as its focus, suggesting that I'd be finding new details on my fifth viewing.

Everyone here is awesome, even if some of them, like Salija Ibraimova who plays Afrodita, seem a little out of their depth. Bajram Serverdzan plays Matko Destanov like a weasel, in both looks and temperament. Srdan Todorovic fits a few different parodies into Dadan Karambolo, sniffing cocaine from every conceivable surface and dancing around like a Liverpudlian gigolo. Branka Katic is a delight as the young Ida. Everyone is highly memorable but Sabri Sulejmani stood out for me. He's simply awesome as Grga Pitic, rich enough and powerful enough to do anything he wants. He also has Clark Gable's eyes which is truly surreal on an old Yugoslavian with terrible teeth.

Sulejmani, Jasar Destani who plays his grandson, Ibraimova, Florijan Ajdini who plays Zare and others don't seem to have appeared in anything else, which is a shame. Even many of the leads have short filmographies: this was Severdzan's second film of four. Only Katic and Todorovic have what look like careers, along with the biggest name of the bunch, writer/director Emir Kusturica. This film is rated highly but it doesn't appear to be his best and that speaks very highly for whatever could be better than this. Amazing and very colourful filmmaking from Yugoslavia.

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