Black Cat White Cat Review

One of the most brilliant, original and funniest director’s in the world, Emir Kusturica’s 1998 comedy film, finally released on DVD by Artificial Eye, sees him at his most exuberant in this headlong rush through the fortunes and romances of Serbian gangsters and small-time crooks. “Music! Aggression!”

Emir Kusturica’s position in European cinema is almost unique and completely at odds with what you might expect from Central European minimalist bleakness that is the usual fare for foreign arthouse exhibition. Kusturica’s cinema rather embraces an exuberant joyousness for life – both human and animal – and his films are consequently literally bursting at the seams with joy, humour and the healthy conflict that keeps the wheels of life rolling along. Although this vision of life is perhaps best celebrated and most completely encapsulated in all its joy and pain in his later film Life Is A Miracle, many of its themes, styles and techniques had already been marvellously achieved in his 1998 film Black Cat White Cat.

Matko Destanov (Bajram Severdzan) has been known to operate a few dodgy deals in his time – winning some, but mostly losing others. Recently things haven’t gone right for him at all and he finds he needs the financial support of Grga Pitic (Sabri Sulejmani), the owner of a gravel separation plant, but also a man of influence who is involved in other less legitimate schemes. Matko needs financing in order to be in on a delivery of a trainload of contraband petrol, and although Uncle Grga regards him as nothing more than “a swindler, a hoodlum, a gambler and a vagabond”, he agrees to help him out, but only because he is indebted to Matko’s father, who twice saved his life. Unfortunately Matko also involves a rather less trustworthy local gangster called Dadan (Srdan Todorovic), and inevitably finds himself in a bit of a mess.

As well as swindling Matko out of his share of the deal, Dadan takes advantage of the situation to solve another problem that has been bothering him. Having married off two of his sisters, unaffectionately known as “The Vampire Bitch” and “Apewoman”, he needs to uphold the honour of his family by marrying off the even more formidable midget of a sister Afdrodita (Salija Ibraimova), a 25 year old woman “one metre and a Gillette blade high” known as “Ladybird”. Matko has no option but to agree to marry her to his 17 year old son Zare (Florijan Ajdini). But Zare has set his sights on a gun-toting, rock ‘n’ rolling barmaid Ida (Branka Katic). With her aunt prepared to marry her off to the gangster Dadan himself, their future together seems unlikely, until Zare’s not-far-off-being-deceased grandfather Zarije (Zabit Memedov) throws a spanner in the works and the whole affair has to be put on ice.

As we’ve come to expect from Emir Kusturica, Black Cat White Cat is a joyous celebration of life, and everything in the film is consequently pumped up to the max with every single frame of the film literally overflowing and bursting with activity. While larger-than-life human events go on in the foreground – stripteases through a field of sunflowers, an operatic singer who can pull nails out of a plank of wood with her ass, raucous weddings and grenade juggling – the animal population leap, swarm, gallop, fornicate and chew their way through wrecks of cars in the background. Among them are the black cat and the white cat, the complementary yin and yang opposites, life and death, good and evil, operating together for better or worse, in sickness and in health. There is no more perfect symbol for the all-embracing nature of existence shown to its fullest and richest in Kusturica’s astonishing film. All of this is of course customarily played out to a lively backbeat of rousing gypsy-punk dance rhythms. “Music! Aggression!”, shouts Zare’s grandfather as he checks out of hospital accompanied by a band of musicians, and in doing so he seems to sum up the ethos of the whole film.

DVDBlack Cat White Cat is released in the UK by Artificial Eye. The DVD is encoded for Region 2 and is in PAL format.

VideoThe video quality of this release is excellent, capturing the warm golden glows of an image that is exploding with colour. It’s perhaps a little soft, and seems softer still when there is movement on the screen causing some slight blurring. The limitations in the definition of the analogue master are also shown in some flattening and lack of detail in blacks and perhaps some signs of cross-colouration in backgrounds, but this is all frankly nit-picking. On the majority of video displays, this looks very impressive indeed and does full justice to the film’s colourful warmth of tone.

AudioThe soundtrack is, disappointingly for such a lively and rousing soundtrack, only Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo. I’m sure a Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack is available for the film, as there is one on the French DVD edition of the film. Still, the stereo mix is more than adequate and certainly clear and strong.

SubtitlesEnglish subtitles are provided and are optional in a clear white font. I don’t speak any Serbo-Croat to be able to verify how accurately they translate the film, but in English the dialogue is hilarious and as colourful as the film itself.

ExtrasThe only extra features included here are an Emir Kusturica Biography and Filmography, and MGM’s US letterboxed Trailer (1:36), which is very dark and not of great quality. Inevitably on a US trailer, you don’t hear anyone actually speaking, lest the strange foreign language put you off going to see the film. It does capture well the riotous nature of the film, but there would be something seriously wrong if you failed to make a good trailer out of the ample material available in this film.

OverallThere really isn’t anything else in cinema like the films of Emir Kusturica. Although he has shown in films like Underground (1995) and Life Is A Miracle (2004) that he can successfully integrate more serious messages and issues into his films, there is no-one who can capture the sheer exuberance of life in all its wonder and richness like Kusturica, and there is no film where that joy is more enthusiastic, explosive and just plain hilarious than in Black Cat White Cat. It’s a lightening fast two-hour film where you can’t take your eye off the headlong rush of activity on the screen for a second without missing some wonderful, inspired comic moment. There’s little to fault with Artificial Eye’s UK DVD release other than it has taken so long to get out there.


Updated: Jun 02, 2006

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