The shifty Matko Destanov (Bajram Severdžan) is forced to marry off his teenage son Zare (Florijan Ajdini) to the midget sister of gangster Dadan Karambolo (Srd–an Todorovic´) in order to settle a debt, Dadan having diddled Matko on the heist of a trainload of smuggled oil. In love with waitress-cum-girl-next-door Ida (Branka Katic´), Zare has other ideas, and is assisted by his seriously ill grandfather Zarije (Zabit Memedov), who decides to die on the wedding day and thus delay, if not scuttle, Matko and Dadan’s down-low arrangement. Mayhem ensues: Dadan insists the wedding proceed, Zarije’s corpse is ‘iced’ in the attic, and the unwilling bride, the horizontally challenged Aphrodita (Salija Ibraimova), elopes during the festivities. On the run and hidden under a tree stump she finds protection and unconditional love in the arms of the giant Grga Veliki (Jasar Destani), the unwed son of wizened ‘boss of bosses’ Grga Pitic´ (Sabri Sulejman), who is en route to visit the grave of his old compadre Zarije, Matko having claimed – while weaselling more sponsorship for the botched oil deal – that Zarije had died the previous year. Shots are fired, two new weddings are scheduled (Zare and Ida, Aphrodita and Grga Veliki), Grga Pitic´ has a heart attack and joins Zarije on ice in the attic, and by the closing credits Dadan, having fallen in the longdrop, is wiping shit from himself with one of the film’s ubiquitous geese.
Bruised by criticism that his 1995 Palme d’Or winning Underground (Podzemlje) was ‘hackneyed and deceitful Serb propaganda’ (quoted in Iordanova 2001: 117) as French intellectual Alain Finkielkraut emblematically labelled it, in 1996, Emir Kusturica announced to a shocked cinema world that he was retiring from filmmaking at age 41. Centring on the unsettling relationship between aesthetics, ideology and cinema as national allegory, the critical division surrounding Underground also serves as an illuminating backdrop to the genesis of Black Cat, White Cat, Kusturica’s ‘comeback’ film and direct response to the furore. Although some have dismissed the film as a minor work full of ‘irrelevant diversions’ (Wrathall 1999), Black Cat, White Cat epitomises Kusturica’s ‘everything plus the kitchen sink’ (Gocic´ 2001: 1) aesthetic of excess. Featuring many of Kusturica’s most beloved leitmotifs, it provokes different questions, among them, those of ethnic stereotyping and the ethics of representing subaltern groups, particularly those who in global popular culture have limited access to representing themselves.
Kusturica was born in 1954, in Sarajevo, BosniaHerzegovina, one of the former Yugoslavia’s six constituent republics, to secular Bosnian Muslim parents. His debut feature Do You Remember Dolly Bell? (Sjec´aš li se Dolly Bell?, 1981) won the Silver Lion for Best First Work at the Venice Film Festival, while his sophomore effort, While Father Was Away on Business (1985, Otac na službenom putu) gained him both his first Palme d’Or and an Academy Award nomination for Best Foreign Film. Time of the Gypsies (Dom za vešanje, 1988) further reinforced Kusturica’s auteur reputation, before the relative failure of Arizona Dream (1992), his first foray into filmmaking in the United States.
While Kusturica had never shied away from politics in his previous films, Underground represented a personal and political act of caesura at a time when his fast becoming former homeland was undergoing a bloody caesura of its own. For his detractors, Kusturica’s fleeting insertion of archival footage of Slovenian and Croatian crowds cheering the arrival of Nazi troops in Maribor and Zagreb (contrasted with footage of the Nazi bombing of the Serbian capital of Belgrade) was a subliminal attempt to historically justify Serbian military aggression in civil wars of the early 1990s. Perhaps given the fact that these elliptical scenes were unlikely to have been understood by most international audiences, the indictment against Kusturica was completed by aggravating off-screen factors. His disavowal of his Bosnian Muslim heritage in favour of a newly discovered Serbian one (on grounds that his ancestors were forcibly converted to Islam by the Ottoman Turks), literal and political abandonment of besieged Sarajevo for the comparative safety of Belgrade (and then Paris), and not least 174 Crna macˇka, beli macˇor/Black Cat, White Cat (1998) the revelation that Underground received a reported ten million US dollars of funding from Slobodan Miloševic´’s ‘rump’ Yugoslav regime, all put Kusturica in the stocks as a proponent of incendiary Serbian nationalism. When his contention that Underground was in fact a mourning work for the death of multi-ethnic Yugoslavia failed to quell the uproar (support for Yugoslavia’s territorial integrity inevitably meant support for its violent enforcement), Kusturica, at least for a short time, drew a temporary curtain on his career.
Licking his wounds, Kusturica originally conceived the film that became Black Cat, White Cat as a documentary on Gypsy brass bands. Looking beyond the farcical ‘Rom(a)com’ 1 it turned into, however, a number of critics have suggested that Kusturica’s loving portrayal of freewheeling Balkan Gypsies was a ‘projection of his own ostracism and homelessness.’ It is a contention on which perhaps the thorniest dilemmas surrounding the film hang. Does Black Cat, White Cat confirm or challenge popular stereotypes about Roma/Gypsies? (Or does it manage to be simultaneously hegemonic and subversive?) Do we watch Black Cat, White Cat as a ‘realistic’ ethnographic document or as an autonomous act of cinematic creation by an offbeat auteur? Is the film as apolitical as commonly thought?
The carnivalesque nature of the caper keeps the all-singing, all-dancing ‘poor but happy’ Gypsy shtick on overdrive throughout. Snorting cocaine (kept in a crucifix vial) Dadan struts out a disco Balkan bird dance unlikely to ever have any Gangnam Style afterlife; Matko straddles a ceiling joist, Dadan and Zare swinging from his legs, screaming ‘my balls are jammed’; a kleptomaniac Bulgarian customs officer is hung dead from a train crossing arm, Mary Poppins’ umbrella in hand; a fat lady with a lacquered quiff sings – but it’s not over until she extracts a nail from a piece of wood with her sphincter; Dadan and his mobsters ‘Cossack dance’ on Matko’s head. Yet ‘the musical Gypsy’ is far from the only exaggerated stereotype Kusturica goes in for. Dadan, for example, embodies the racist folklore of the Gypsy male’s alleged sexual menace towards non-Roma women, while in casting Grga Pitic´ as a rubbish dump magnate, Kusturica manages something of a personal trifecta: garbage disposal is a favoured enterprise of mobsters worldwide, scrapheaps are entrenched in the popular imagination as a locus of impoverished Gypsy life, and in a nod to his own oeuvre, the rubbish dump provided one of the key settings for Time of the Gypsies. Noted East European film scholar Dina Iordanova goes as far as to suggest that the film represents an act of ‘overt exploitation or exoticisation of Gypsies’ (2003: 88) which on the basis of the evidence above, is certainly a legitimate claim. But might something also be said in Kusturica’s defence?