What is Rick Doing in the Balkans?
Quotes from Casablanca
in Kusturica's Black Cat, White Cat (1998)

Francesco Caviglia

Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship
The "beautiful friendship" that begins between Rick and Renault in the last scene of Casablanca, accompanied by the notes of La Marseillaise, is both personal and political: during the production of the film it was an exhortation to military intervention against Germany at a time when the U.S. government seemed to hesitate, [1] while by the time the film reached Europe the friendship may have been perceived by viewers in connection with D-Day or even with the Marshall plan.

What does this scene mean today to a Balkan filmmaker and to his audience? The sentence uttered by Bogart after Renault drops a bottle of Vichy water into the trash can returns three times - twice with images from Casablanca visible on the screen - in Emir Kusturica's Crna macka, beli macor / Black Cat, White Cat (1998). I suggest in the following that these quotes have a crucial function in shaping the viewer's feelings, expectations and understanding of this film, which may not deserve to be dismissed - as it has been by at least one major critic - as an apolitical minor work cluttered with "irrelevant diversions." [2]

Black Cat, White Cat - Apolitical?
John Wrathall is one of the authoritative voices - including Kusturica himself - that claims that Black Cat, White Cat is fundamentally apolitical:

At one point the gangster Dadan is jokingly referred to as a war criminal. But beyond the implication that Serbia is now run by men like him, there's nothing else in Black Cat White Cat to suggest the turmoil of Yugoslavia's recent history. This was clearly Kusturica's intention.

Moreover, after praising several formal aspects of the film, Wrathall concludes his review by writing:

However, the film's most memorable images all seem to be either irrelevant diversions (like the pig eating a car) or reruns of previous greatest hits [...] The final scene, meanwhile, in which the lovers Zare and Ida float off down the Danube, recalls Underground, with its suggestion that escape is the only happy ending possible in Yugoslavia. [3]

The final scene and the figure of Dadan are indeed the most overt references to the present condition of what remains of Yugoslavia. In my view, however, Wrathall overlooks the ways in which quotes, self-quotes and digressions function in Kusturica's work as a privileged means of involving the viewer in the creation of meaning and thereby serves in many cases as between-the-lines comments.

It was Kusturica himself who contributed - through interviews and amusing pictures such as the one shown in figure 1 - to what I consider as a partial misunderstanding. In fact, after being virulently accused of having made pro-Serbian propaganda with Underground (1995),[4] Kusturica seemed glad to support apolitical readings of his new film.

Fig. 1. Emir Kusturica. In a recent book this picture was captioned as "Shortly after quitting film-making, Kusturica released his apolitical Black Cat, White Cat." [5]

History (with a capital H) actually does not play the same central role in this film as in Underground; however, Black Cat, White Cat is rooted in the same deep commitment to his people - those who grew up in former Yugoslavia - and in contempt of those responsible for their misery. Both attitudes are expressed with the same strength and just as unmistakably as in Underground. Only this time the framework for sharing these feelings with his audience remains a comedy most of the time, instead of turning into tragedy as do Kusturica's previous features.[6]

Fig. 2-3. Zare reproaching his father and a pig eating a Trabant.

For example, the apparently "irrelevant" pig is eating a Trabant,[7] a car that became a symbol for Eastern Europe's backwardness with respect to the West at the end of the '80s. Viewers may differ as to the specific villains and victims they read into the pig and the car, but the reference to the fall and spoliation of post-Communist countries is quite clear. Moreover, the first of the pig's three appearances is placed right after a confrontation in which the young protagonist Zare shouts at his father, "I will never forgive you" (figs. 2-3), and is followed by another "digression": a luxurious tourist boat gliding on the Danube to the melody of An dd schönen blauen Donau, underlining the East-West dichotomy, with the latter seeming far and unreachable at this stage of the film. In the last scene, however, the same boat will take the young heroes away from the misery of their land forever. As Goran Gocic puts it, in his insightful monograph on Kusturica:

Resting in a quite discreet sub-context and underplayed by the guiltless vulgarity of Black Cat, White Cat's humour, this level [the 'political' one] is nevertheless present.[8]

Before proceeding further, a brief overview of the plot in Black Cat, White Cat may help those who have not seen the film.

Young Zare (Florijan Ajdini) lives on the banks of the Danube within a (mainly) Gypsy community with his father, Matko (Bajram Severdzam), a small-time, inept crook. Matko would like to enter big business and asks an old powerful and sick Gypsy godfather, Uncle Grga (Sabri Sulejman), for a loan in the name of the old friendship between Grga and Matko's deceased father. This is a lie (the one that his son Zare "will never forgive"), because Matko's father, Zarije (Zabit Memedov), Zare's beloved grandfather, is still alive, although old and ailing in hospital. Matko uses the money to organize the hijacking of a train together with the gangster Dadan (Srdjan Todorovich), who cheats Matko by making the coup alone and by pretending that it failed; in addition, Dadan blames Matko for the failure and asks, as retribution, that Matko's son Zare marry Dadan's midget sister, Afrodita (Salija Ibraimova). Neither Zare, in love with beautiful Ida (Branka Katic), nor Afrodita, who is waiting for the very tall man of her dreams, want to marry, but they are literally forced by the much feared Dadan. Zare's grandfather tries to save his grandson by dying on the day of the wedding, which should postpone the ceremony for the 40 days of mourning; but Dadan obliges Matko to hide his father away until the end of the feast. It is Afrodita, in theory the weakest link (as Ida remarks with bitter irony), who first has the guts to defy Dadan and escapes from the wedding banquet. Zare gains courage too: he decides to escape with Ida and take revenge on Dadan. The happy ending is in sight, but the story still reserves surprises, with the two old gypsies as dei ex machina coming back from death to give their blessing to the young couple. In the last scenes, the old men look at the young couple sailing toward a better future, and then toward Dadan, who just fell into a cesspit (Zare's revenge) and is helped out by Matko, the only one who does not desert him; their comment in the scene is: "I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship."

The attributes of the main characters
As in all of his other features films with the exception of Underground, the heroes are young and, especially Zare, basically innocent, to the extent that 'innocence' is possible in Kusturica's world. Their faces reveal just about everything we need to know (figs. 4-5).

Figs. 4-5. Zare and Ida in the scene in which they first talk to each other.

Their opponents are the adults who have power: especially Matko, because he is Zare's father, and Dadan, because he has power over Matko and, until the final scenes, over everyone else in the small community.

Matko enters the scene playing cards with himself and then snatching his son's breakfast. Dadan, the true villain, has as his attributes weapons, cocaine (which he sniffs out of a crucifix), bodyguards, disco music and two groupies following him around (figs. 6-7). He is a killer, as we both see and are told: Matko speaks of him to his son as "a war criminal," while praising him in public as "a patriot and businessman." But Dadan has neither the brains of Underground's Marko, nor the strength of 'Blaky' Peter Popanov, although he does share with them a certain vitality, and with Marko the habit of manipulating others.

The young heroes receive decisive help fulfilling their dreams from twosick and dying old characters who manage to use what remains of their power to help those they feel close to.

Figs. 6-7. Matko and Dadan.

Zarije's hallmark is the music resurrecting him from a bed in hospital (figs. 8-9), which is enough to make him sympathetic from the start; music will later accompany his voluntary death, while an accordion (full of money, by the way) will be his final gift to his grandson Zare.

Figs. 8-9. Zarije revived and 'rescued' from hospital by the music of a gypsy band brought there by his grandson Zare.

In order to better appreciate the impact of Zarije's first appearance, it should be added that the actor performing his part had played a very similar role and had been linked to the same tune in Time of Gypsies (1989); also Matko, his inept son, is quite similar to the character of Merdzan in the same film (an example of the way Kusturica constructs and maintains complicity with his aficionados, inviting them to perceive each film as an ongoing dialogue).

Zarije's long-time friend Uncle Grga (played by a non-professional actor, a retired shoeshiner in everyday life)[9] , is indeed a new face, and not one that is easy to forget (figs. 10-13).

Figs. 10-11. Uncle Grga (the Great) in his first appearance, enjoying life.
Figs. 12-13. Uncle Grga talking business.

Uncle Grga is the only one among the main characters whose moral status is not already decided from his first appearance. He lives in a fortress protected by television cameras and armed thugs (as we will understand later, Grga was once Dadan's boss, and possibly a model). Uncle Grga is a gypsy Godfather who possesses heaps of money, and everybody pays their respects to him as he moves around in a baroque, motorized wheelchair, brandishing a golden revolver.

He gives the impression of a ruthless old gangster with a code; he decides to entrust Matko with a considerable sum to honour his friendship with Matko's allegedly deceased father. At any rate, the viewer probably associates Uncle Grga above all with power, Mafia-type criminality and maybe with eccentricity, until the second encounter presents the character in a different light.

The old crook and Casablanca
The second time we meet Uncle Grga he is lying in bed and talking business with his son and associates (the enterprise actually seems more harmless than the fortress-like house would suggest: making 'artificial' whiskey). His face is as cold and emotionless as in the first encounter, until it is transfigured while he is watching, visibly moved, the final scenes of Casablanca (figs. 14-16).

Figs. 14-15-16. Uncle Grga watching the last scenes of Casablanca and then rewinding the tape. Fig. 17. Uncle Grga looking at the portrait of his only true love. As times goes by is playing in the background.

The farewell between Rick and Ilsa at the airport evokes for him - as he tells his son with a dreamy tone - the one great love of his life, a 'vertically-challenged' beauty that he recalls as 'my little dove' (fig. 17). From that very moment we (viewers) realize that Uncle Grga will stand by the heroes and fight the villains. And, with Bogart on his side, he is likely to succeed.

But Uncle Grga is now old and almost blind, and does not have much time left. The third time he appears, he is lying in a hospital bed, again watching Casablanca, and repeating along with Rick the famous line: "Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship."

The beginning of a beautiful friendship revisited
Goran Gocic has observed how Kusturica consistently uses quotes and paraphrases according to a 'core-periphery' or 'original-cheap copy' scheme, with his characters translating popular Western myths into a marginal (Eastern/gypsy/psychotic) dimension.[10] Evoking the 'beautiful friendship' as a comment on the new alliance between Matko and Dadan (figs. 18-19) corresponds precisely to this 'original-cheap copy' scheme.

The same scheme seems to apply more generally, with Casablanca being appropriated by the marginals of the marginals - sick old Gypsies in Eastern Europe.

Figs. 18-19. Uncle Grga points at Matko and Dadan (the latter just coming out of a cesspit) and quotes, "Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship." Zarije nods.

I would argue, however, that here the scheme takes on a different function and a wider resonance than, say, in Do You Remember Dolly Bell (1981), where young people from Sarajevo long for Western kitsch, like Hollywood's 'baby doll' somehow transformed in the Balkans, via Rome, into the stage name of a stripper.

But in Black Cat, White Cat the friendship between Uncle Grga and Zarije that we see on the screen (fig. 17) is indeed as beautiful and heroic as the one between Rick and Renault. And the original, Casablanca, is cherished in about the same way by Uncle Grga and Kusturica's audience. In this respect, Uncle Grga and Zarije are not a 'cheap copy' (although they may look like it), but rather the truest heirs of the disenchanted but heroic attitude to life portrayed by Bogey. Their friendship - two old crooks with a sense of art and love - incorporates the best virtues of the Balkan soul, never presented before by Kusturica in such a positive light. But the two men are old, maybe already dead; their last deed is to help their young heirs to run away from the stupid and ferocious criminals who are now in charge. And young Zare actually does succeed in carrying out the legacy of the two old men: Uncle Grga's courage in love and war - Zare finally takes revenge on Dadan and kidnaps the officer of the civil wedding in order to get married in time to catch the boat to the West - and Grandfather Zarije's feel for art. "Remember the accordion. Inside, you'll find what you need to live happily," are Zarije's words in response to his grandson's decision to go away. The fact that the accordion also contains Zarije's money just adds a touch of irony to a moving statement about art and its place in life.

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1 Richard Raskin, The Functional Analysis of Art (Aarhus: Arkona, 1982), pp. 279-304.

2 John Wrathall, "Black Cat, White Cat - Review," Sight and Sound, May 1999.
Also online: <http://www.bfi.org.uk/sightandsound/reviews/details.php?id=97>, seen 30.8.2002.

3 Wrathall, op. cit.

4 Dina Iordanova, in Cinema of flames. Balkan film, culture and the media (London: British Film Institute Publishing, 2001), devotes one chapter to the violent controversy (pp. 111-135) and does not entirely acquit Kusturica from the accusation. On the other hand, Goran Gocic, in Notes from the Underground: the cinema of Emir Kusturica (London & New York: Wallflower Press, 2001), ends the debate by saying that "the arguments used against Underground were simply unsustainable, often ridiculous and occasionally plain stupid" (p. 41). At any rate, Kusturica deeply resented the criticism.

5 Iordanova, op. cit., p. 128. A few pages below, Iordanova again defines the film as "intentionally apolitical" and dismisses it as a minor work, in accordance with the opinion of "serious critics" (p. 131).

6 From an interview with Kusturica, reported as an indirect quote in Gocic, op. cit., p. 12.

7 That the old car is a Trabant has been noted by Gocic, op. cit., p. 75, and surely by many viewers.

8 Goci, op. cit., p. 59.

9 James Berardinelli (1999) ReelViews.
<http://movie-reviews.colossus.net/movies/b/black_cat.html>, seen 30.8.2002.

10 Goci, op. cit., p. 145.

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