Kusturica Keeps the Peace

When the cat's away: Director Emir Kusturica (right) on the set of <B>Black Cat, White Cat</B>

When the cat's away: Director Emir Kusturica (right) on the set of Black Cat, White Cat

"MY BIGGEST ENEMY," says the Sarajevo-born director Emir Kusturica, "is naturalism." And no wonder: Kusturica's wonderfully absurdist Black Cat, White Cat is a relentless slapstick comedy whose cartoonish cast of caricatures engage in an endless series of fracases and pratfalls--culminating in a hysterical double wedding and an exquisitely obscene gag involving an outhouse full of excrement. The film's outrageous spirit represents a departure for Kusturica following his justly celebrated but controversial Underground (1995), a politically supercharged lament for the dissolution of Yugoslavia.

"It was a pleasure to make a movie starting from scratch again," he says. "Black Cat, White Cat is really a fairy tale, like a little play with two major human characteristics: love and friendship. To me, the film is like therapy. I think people need the energetic infusion that this film has."

Alas, the director's audience would need to wait. My conversation with Kusturica took place at the Sundance Film Festival back in January--two months before NATO's own epic production in Yugoslavia inspired October Films to postpone the American release of Black Cat, White Cat until peacetime and beyond. (The movie opened in Minneapolis at Lagoon Cinema last Friday.) Speaking during the relative calm of January, the handsome and disheveled Kusturica emphasized the restorative value in making a so-called apolitical film, which drew him back from a planned retirement in the wake of charges that Underground had expressed solidarity with the Serbs.

"I was exhausted," says Kusturica, the 44-year-old son of Muslim parents, who now splits his time between Paris and Normandy. "The attacks on Underground--which was totally a film about ideology, lies, and manipulation--were about how I had lied and manipulated people, which was funny. I said I'd never make another film, but then I realized that this would be like committing suicide. Finally I said, 'Better make another movie.'"

Originally, Kusturica had conceived his nonpartisan return to cinema as a documentary about Gypsy musicians in Yugoslavia. But once he started planning the film along the banks of the Danube, the director decided to make a narrative feature instead, while retaining the focus on the Gypsy subculture that he had explored earlier in his film Time of the Gypsies (1988). "It's a group I always turn to when I get fed up with the tasks that this civilization is giving us," Kusturica says. "The Gypsies are a group that has preserved its profile for a thousand years without using any of the methods that we did. They didn't have a medieval fortress, they didn't have black powder, they didn't have any deadly weapons. They found a way to survive and multiply based on their own beauty."

Albeit a wild comedy, the film celebrates difference in a way that seems political in the context of Yugoslavia's ethnic strife. So, too, Black Cat, White Cat's particular brand of magic realism seems to derive from the hard realities that inspire an artist of Kusturica's temperament to indulge his flights of fancy. "I don't think an American from the Midwest would play with magic realism very much," opines Kusturica, "except in movies like Superman. That could be magic realism, too, in a way, but I don't find anything magic in it; it's just something that's loaded with special effects. True magic realism grows out of places where the political and historical context blends with the reaction of the people--sometimes in strange ways."

Kusturica speaks with a confidence that borders on pretension and arrogance--but even so, it isn't unearned. Each of the director's six features (which also include Do You Remember Dolly Bell? and Arizona Dream) has won a major prize at either the Cannes, Berlin, or Venice film festivals; and no director but Kusturica has taken the Palme d'Or at Cannes more than once. (Kusturica's Underground and When Father Was Away on Business claimed the prize in 1995 and 1985, respectively.) Recently, Kusturica's plans to adapt a Dennis Potter script of D.B. Thomas's novel The White Hotel (the film he was discussing excitedly in January) have stalled, although he has also expressed interest in returning to Underground territory with an epic that would be bracketed by the Serbian bombing of Sarajevo and NATO's bombing of Serbia.

Returning to such a minefield might seem like artistic suicide, but in January the director contradicted that claim. "To me," Kusturica explains, "the biggest task that the author has in making movies is, 'How does the author maintain his artistic life for as long as possible?' So if I look behind me over the last 20 years, I see that I did not make any movies that I'm ashamed of. I'm proud of all of them, and that's the best you can do in life."