The critics- cinema: Stalinism the Romany way

Black Cat White Cat

Director: Emir Kusturica

Starring: Bajram Secerdzan, Srdan Todorovic, Branka Katic (120 mins; 15)

In 1995, smarting from the violent reaction to Underground, his controversial "film poem about delusion, allusion and illusion", the Serbian director Emir Kusturica publicly announced that he was retiring from the cinema. Some six months later, after seeing Underground - or the half- hour of it I could just about endure - I myself announced to anyone who cared to listen that I'd never watch another of Kusturica's films, old or new. He eventually changed his mind, so did I, and here we are again.

It has to be said that, for those of us who know Kusturica exclusively from his work, there's something not quite convincing about this image of the sensitive, thin-skinned artist licking his wounds after a critical mauling (a mauling which was in any case all very relative: Underground won the Palme d'Or, the second awarded the director, at the same Cannes Festival at which it was booed). So far from being fey wee mood pieces, the films themselves are noisy, surreal, anarchic and rambunctious, the sort which invariably make you feel, no matter where you're sitting in the cinema, that you're in the very front row. Compared to the characters of , Carmen Miranda suddenly strikes one as drab and mousy and Anthony Quinn as no more of a boozily picturesque life force than, say, Martyn Lewis.

Set in a small Gypsy community on the banks of the Danube, it focuses on the interlinked destinies of an indefatigably scheming band of Mafia godfathers, penny-ante scam artists, lusty young adolescents, wily old babushkas, outlandishly mustachioed bodyguards and bosomy good-time girls, all attempting to turn an honest or dishonest dollar. There are a lot of missing teeth on display (if such an oxymoron is conceivable), there is what seems like a flock of geese in every shot, there's an alfresco wedding ceremony, a cartoonish pursuit through a forest, a weird motorised wheelchair, a fetid cesspool just waiting for someone to fall into it (which someone duly does) and, slinkily bringing up the rear, the title's two cats, whose presence has something to do with - wouldn't you know? - an ancient Serbian proverb about good luck following bad. Or possibly vice versa. The overall effect is as though one of those Mack Sennett burlesque shorts with Keystone Kops and bathing beauties had been stretched from 20 minutes to beyond two hours.

Actually, as I watched , some obscure recollection of another director or genre - not Sennett or burlesque - nagged at me. I thought initially of Fellini - for the looseness of the plotting, the exuberance of the performances, the rowdy carnivalesque atmosphere, the high preponderance of physical grotesques and, above all, the sense that the film was probably more fun to make than to watch - but he wasn't quite right either. Then it hit me. What it resembled most was a Soviet musical, of a type celebrated in the recent documentary East Side Story. And not just any Soviet musical but one in particular, Grigori Alexandrov's shriekingly garish Volga Volga of 1938, reportedly Stalin's favourite film in all the world (even more than Singin' in the Rain).

This is not just movie-buff trivia. For even if its scattershot approach to narrative makes it difficult, at least for a foreigner, to detect the influence of any coherent political ideology, can perhaps be enjoyed best as a post-Marxist Volga Volga, a delirious fantasia spun around the theme of the unregulated gangster capitalism now apparently rampant in the former Eastern bloc. And it is, too, practically a musical, complete with peripatetic brass band and many - for my own taste, too many - Romany songs and dances.

If that description makes it all sound like an exhausting experience, well, I'm afraid it is. It's like a novel written entirely in italics, every single sentence of which ends with an exclamation mark. As there are people of whom it's said that they don't know their own strength, Kusturica is a film-maker who doesn't know his own brilliance. That he is brilliant is never in doubt. Any one image of the film, even one selected at random, is so dynamically angled and animated as to make the average Hollywood production look like amateur night. But he has a lot to learn about pacing a narrative, about alternating frenetic slapstick with moments of calm and contemplation, about the need simply to give the poor spectator's eyes a break. Again and again, I found myself longing for a totally uninteresting shot, a stupid shot, just once, to see what it felt like. No such luck.

I must end by saying, though, that it has pained me to write this mostly negative review - for three reasons. One, because I suspect a lot of readers might like the film more than I did and I'd rather not put them off seeing it. Two, because whenever it forgets, as it sometimes does, to be nerve- rackingly virtuosic, it possesses a good-natured, beguilingly sunny charm that makes one regret all the more what might have been. And, three, because nothing is more dispiriting to a critic than having to pan a single example of something which, in general, he or she is eager to promote.

So let's accentuate the positive. For all its very real flaws, is nevertheless superior to almost everything else doing the current rounds, and can therefore be (fairly) safely recommended to anyone whose interest in the cinema isn't limited to the latest American blockbuster. As for myself, exactly as I've often liked a film with reservations, so I dislike this one - with reservations.