`Cat' bolts from subplot to subplot

Review: The lowbrow black comedy never stops to take a breath while following the adventures of two Gypsy families.

October 29, 1999|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,SUN STAFF

"Black Cat, White Cat" is the perfect film for anyone who finds the Keystone Cops a little too understated and I mean that as a compliment.

Manic and unashamedly lowbrow, this latest from Cannes favorite Emir Kusturica mixes a sympathetic feel for the way Gypsies really live, a winking acknowledgment of the way they've traditionally been depicted (both on-screen and in popular culture) and a mastery of madcap cinema into the film equivalent of a perpetual motion machine. There's not a languid moment to be found here, and the end result of all this freneticism is nothing short of intoxicating.

Not to mention howlingly funny.

Filled with characters who could use a little less caffeine in their systems, "Black Cat, White Cat" roughly follows a pair of Gypsy families living along the banks of the Danube River.

Matko Destanov (Bajram Severdzan) is a small-time operator with delusions of hitting it big; he thinks he's finally found the mother lode when he's let in on a deal involving a trainload of petroleum that he's sure will net him a fortune.

Poor Matko, of course, suffers the fate of all chronic losers. He loses. And, in so doing, finds himself in debt to cocaine-addled crime-lord wannabe Dadan (Srdan Todorovic). To make things right, he's forced to agree to marry off his son, Zare (Florijan Ajdini), to Dadan's ill-tempered sister, Afrodita (Salija Ibraimova). Zare, of course, wants nothing to do with this woman but has fallen in love with the effervescent Ida (Branka Katic).

Meanwhile -- and there are a lot of meanwhiles in this film -- aging crime lord Grga Pitic (Sabri Sulejmani) has a few problems of his own. For one, he's dying. For two, he's trying to ensure his family's happiness, particularly that of his son, Grga Veliki (Jas'ar Destani). And for three, he wants to visit the grave of his erstwhile friend and rival, Zarije Destanov (Zabit Mehmedovski). Who isn't dead.

If that isn't a tortured-enough plot, don't worry. That's only the bare-bones description. We won't even get into the dead bodies being kept on ice in the attic, the walking tree trunk, the accordion full of money, the great outhouse caper and the myriad animals (including a car-eating hog) that serve as exclamation points throughout the film.

The actors in "Black Cat, White Cat" match Kusturica's high-octane direction with performances that start over the top and go from there. Especially fun to watch are Severdzan as the hapless, and hopeless, patriarch-in-waiting of the Destanov clan (his greatest joy is playing himself in poker), and Katic as the unquenchable Ida.

Kusturica, a three-time prize winner at Cannes (for "When Father Was Away On Business," "Time of the Gypsies" and "Underground"), not only keeps up the film's impossible frenetic pace, but infuses it with some wonderful set pieces.

A romp through a cornfield by Ajdini and Katic, for instance, is a surprisingly sensual delight, while Severdzan's efforts to retrieve a briefcase at a train station belong in the black comedy hall of fame.

`Black Cat, White Cat'

Starring Bajram Severdzan and Srdan Todorovic

Directed by Emir Kusturica

Released by October Films

Running time 127 minutes

Rated R (Language, black comedy)

In Serbo-Croatian and Romanian with English subtitles

Sun score: ***1/2

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