Filmmaker Retrospective: The Hysterical Cinema of Emir Kusturica

6. Underground (1995)


At first, this film looks just another adventure by Emir Kusturica, but that appearance is just an illusion. “Underground” was very controversial when it was released because some critics said that it was a movie “full of pro-Serb propaganda,” but ultimately Kusturica had created another cinematic success and won his second Palm D’or.

Considered by many to be the magnum opus of Kusturica, the 1995 film shows a wiser and more mature director, who has developed a great arsenal of filmmaking techniques. Clearly influenced by Tarkovsky, Fellini and Renoir, Kusturica moves away from the Dusan Kovacevic novel and from the script too, relying heavily on improvisation to craft a story about two friends – Blacky and Marko – who are in love with the same woman, a great Yugoslavian actress.

Kusto divides the film in three parts: War, Cold War and… War. With this structure, the movie is a very creative lesson about European history, as the story transpires through three important war periods of the twentieth century: World War II, the Cold War and the Yugoslavian Civil War. But this film is not about a certain moment or a certain place, it exceeds the boundaries of time and space.

There’s always something happening as the characters form a new plan, and that makes the film very rich in content. The use of certain levity results in a comic side of war that is very interesting to see, such as when Marko is idly masturbating during a bombing that causes many deaths just outside his door.

As in his previous films, Emir Kusturica uses lots of singing, dancing and politics, retaining the same goofiness and all the ingredients that he usually uses in his stories.

At some points, it is easy to feel a little lost in this film because certain events occur without logic and explanation, but then we simply have to connect the pieces ourselves and voilá, all makes sense. Without doubt, this is an art film in all aspects, and such an approach is not always well received by the general public.

In the movie poster, we can read “one of the great films of the decade”, but I would risk saying this is one of the greatest films of all time. Even the apparently trivial moments can be important for the film’s overall intent and narrative, and this subtle and purposeful style captivates the full attention of the spectator.

It’s easy to find some similarities with Wolfgang Becker’s “Good Bye Lenin!” since there are two different realities in conflict: the familiar one, where the previous war is over and life is full of paranoia because of the Cold War, and the underground one, where people think World War II is still happening up above.

“Underground” is an energetic and tragic affair with an abundance of both smiles and tears and where danger, energy, freedom and claustrophobia share the same space. In its light and creative way, this piece shows how people’s fanaticism can run to a tragic end for those we love most, however unintentionally or unconsciously this may develop. Whatever happens, our thoughts and minds still depend on the most important things: memories, feelings and emotions.

Above the narrative’s events, there hovers an intriguing line that has a striking level of beauty and sadness: “there’s no war, while brother doesn’t kill brother.” This is a very special effort by Emir Kusturica and the movie that took him to a high level of cinema, etching his name into the history of film and ensuring that he will be remembered.


7. Black Cat, White Cat (1998)

Black Cat, White Cat (1998)

First of all, “Crna macka, beli macor”, the original name of the movie, is a far superior title for this Gypsy story in comparison with the English translated one. This is primarily because “macka” is a feminine cat and “macor” is a masculine cat, but in English we can’t get that same contrast so easily, so we lose a little of the meaning.

In the same pattern of Emir’s early works, “Black Cat, White Cat” is a rude, violent, filthy and culturally deep film that focuses on the Gypsies’ dark business, their culture, their festive way of living and, of course, their strong emotions.

The film’s content is based in surrealism, as portrayed through the characters and scenery along the coast of the Danube; additionally, the plot begins constantly jumping into distant realities near the end of the film. This film is more “in your face” than others, and this leads the viewer both to an easy comprehension and to big laughs, ensuring that “Black Cat, White Cat” is one of the best and funniest films by Emir Kusturica.

The notion of perspective is the crucial to the film. Kusturica starts by sharing only a few frames from different stories, giving the viewer certain clues of how things will end. Within stories of Gypsy mafia, crime and deception, love remains the driving story element in the relationship between Ida and Zare, two poor Gypsies who love each other but whose fates are controlled by money and powerful interests.

Despite the gravity of their love, all this is narrated with a comic spirit, and this is what people really enjoy in the film. With lots of good laughs and the lead actor of “Serbian Film” offering an excellent performance, the film escapes from the stereotypical expectations of a comedy, thanks as well to the Gypsy culture reflected in the movie and to the music used throughout, such as the “Pitt Bull Terrier” theme.

The use of contrasts is, again, very well employed by Kusto. We see rich people living with poor people, criminals in conflict with an honest man, Zare, and the stereotype of submissive women, which we also see in “Time of the Gypsies”, in stark contrast with Ida, a rebellious, independent and self-motivated Gypsy girl. All those contrasts are symbolically represented by the image of the black cat and the white cat.

The concept of true love does not strike the viewer as a cliché, occurring as it does in the middle of crime and vagrancy, although Kusturica does not fully explore the emotional aspect of the film. What matters here is the story itself, the marriages that occur within three days, and the laughs provided by all the characters.

When all these elements combine, “Black Cat, White Cat” is a straightforward story where, in the end, love wins over money, the good are happy, and the bad are left in a nasty situation. Kusturica doesn’t close the film with an ordinary “The End”, but with a “Happy End.” This sums it up quite nicely.


8. Life is a Miracle (2004)


“Every film that I was doing is almost the same movie in different faces, different approaches.” Like a painter and his favorite subjects, Kusturica was always exploring the same concept throughout his filmography, but with distinct nuances and subjects. By creating many movies with a traditional atmosphere and a cultural strong feeling,

Kusturica became a master in this style of art film. Indeed, “Life is a Miracle” isn’t the best “Balkan film” made by Kusturica, but it is a movie that shows a mature director who knows what he is doing and who can turn a bizarre and baroque plot into a naturalistic story. This maturity and this strong craftsmanship eliminate some potential naivety from the film, and that’s an innovation here.

This is another film that takes place in… yes, you got it, Bosnia. “Life is a Miracle” is very visual and utilizes all of Kusturica’s usual ingredients with a very imaginative story that incorporates football, music, war, politics, rhythm, surrealism and Balkan culture.

This 2004 film is about the Bosnian war, which occurred from 1992 to 1995 and pitted Bosnia against Croatia and Serbia, and tells the story of a dysfunctional family that ran out of Belgrade and later regrets their actions. Again, we notice that Kusturica likes to promote his actors from supporting roles to main parts.

Slavko Stimac is Luka, an impotent father struggling against all the tragedies that ravage his family: his son is called away for war, his wife runs off with a Hungarian musician, and he has a Muslim prisoner in his house. Left alone in Bosnia, Luka tries to close his eyes to the war, but the bombing attacks and the specter of war nearly intrude into his home. Of course this happens with a comic element, which Kusturica always uses.

The connection between football and the army is a well-expressed concept here, since, at the time, people who played in football clubs were automatically exempt from the draft. So, lots of football players tried to be excused from combat to play football. Luka’s son, Milos, is an example of this situation which has occurred throughout the history of football.

Another well-conceived and shrewdly-developed attribute is Kusturica’s characteristic surrealism. The viewer is amazed to see, in the middle of the war, a broken-hearted donkey who cries and tries to commit suicide and an old man ripping down a football post and beating some football players with it.

This succeeds in being funny because it suits the film’s unusual and particular ambience, which carries that Kusturican bizarre feeling. At this point, the style is almost a unique genre created by the Serbian filmmaker.

In this portrayal of a clash of civilizations, it’s very interesting to see the way Kusturica developed the plot. Suddenly, former rival countries are sleeping in the same bed. Luka and Sabaha represent the orthodox Christian Serbs and the muslin Bosnians respectively, and they quickly show how easy it is to put their differences apart. The chemistry of the unlikely couple is very strong and they provide some of the most beautiful scenes in the movie.

Emir Kusturica proves that love and war can coexist at the same time and place, as we can hear the sounds of bombs and gunfire just outside the house while we see kisses and tenderness in the bed. In a certain way, those two are living in a world understandable only to them. All the other people are simply on the wrong wavelength.

Once we consider the film’s music, in “Life is a Miracle” Emir abandons the Gypsy songs and festive music used in his previous works and instead embraces more melancholic, serene, and yet sometimes heartrending songs. As in the past, the soundtrack hits the mark perfectly! This new melodies are appropriate to this ‘90s Bosnia, which conforms more closely with the rest of Europe than it did in older times.

This politically incorrect film brings to mind the story about Stalin and his twenty four partridges, as told by Milan Kundera in “Festival of Insignificance.” At one point in this story, Kundera says that the world lost its sense of humor. In “Life is a Miracle”, no one can take a joke because they’ve lost their sense of humor too. I’m glad Kusturica didn’t lose his.


9. Promise Me This (2007)

Promise Me This (2007)

Emir Kusturica likes to compare his cinema with a circus, where everybody can understand the events without needing to be from a certain region. He perfectly achieves that effect in “Promise Me This”, a true circus in film form. Unfortunately, the Serbian relies too heavily on exaggeration and slapstick, to the point that some roles come across more as mere clowns than as convincing characters.

The beginning of the story looks promising, but there isn’t enough sobriety in the plot, and those theatrical exaggerations spoil the movie to some degree. As we know, Emir is very attracted to musing on the past, and, once again, this is a story that sends the viewer to the director’s childhood.

In terms of traditional genres, “Promise Me This” is an adventure movie in which we root for the protagonist, and it carries some similarities to Aesop’s extremely metaphorical “The City Mouse and the Country Mouse.”

The country mouse here is Tsane, a kid who lives with his grandfather in the remote hills of Serbia. The boy is growing up and his grandfather is afraid of dying alone, so he sends Tsane to the city to sell a cow, buy a souvenir and a religious icon, and, last but not least, come back with a spouse.

Kusturica draws a cartoon version of those severe times, when there was great fear among the people due to the military events of the 20th century. Not only are the characters cartoonish, but the plot is as well. There’s a scene where the grandfather Zivojin cries as he listens to the Russian Anthem but his grandson is laughing as he enjoys the view of his teacher’s breasts.

The film also presents a very touching connection between those two characters, and it’s striking to see how they cry together and find comfort each other. The use of surrealism is evident too, with a crying painting of Saint Nicholas and a man from the circus flying over the city.

Kusturica maintains his distinct quality, for he certainly absorbs us for two hours in this funny, surreal and burlesque world. We can’t deny that merit. He does it in the same way Tim Burton does. Even if the movie is bad (and sometimes it’s really bad), Tim Burton always holds our eyes into the screen because of the visual aspect of his movies. Nevertheless, this is a bittersweet film.

The happily-ending stories of Kusturica have the weakness of identifying the good and the bad too overtly, which is rather tedious after a while. The good are poor and naïve and the bad always have guns and are dressed with black Motörhead shirts.

Another thing that looks very artificial is Tsane’s love at first sight and his friendship with a pair of guys who look like the duo from “Funny Games”: he sees Jasna, he falls in love; he meets two men and they easily become his best friends; etc.

In addition, the contrast between the suspicious city people and the goodness and blind trust of the village people is accomplished, showing some cynicism about the value of honor, which is no longer a reliable virtue nowadays. Even so, the kid likes to fulfill his promises.

If we consider the talent and sensibility that Kusturica shows on other occasions, then “Promise Me This” seems like a fairly disappointing and amateurish effort. Many of the adventures are rather childish, which is counterintuitive because, in the previous film, Kusturica showed precisely the opposite: maturity and confident knowledge of his craft. “Zavet” or “Promise Me This” depends a lot on the expectations of the spectator, and that’s a bad thing.

The ones who are expecting for a nuanced, artistic and subtle film like “Underground,” “When Father Was Away on Business” or “Arizona Dream” will have a massive disappointment. For those who expect some good laughs and lighthearted humor similar to “Black Cat, White Cat” or “Life is a Miracle,” with minimal concern for production and realism, this film could be a really enjoyable pastime. All the ingredients are there, but the recipe is different.


10. Maradona by Kusturica (2008)

Napoles, Junio de 2005. Maradona en el estadio San Paolo donde se jugo el partido despedida de Ciro Ferrara. Fotos: Juan Jose Traverso.

This was Kusturica’s debut in the fertile world of documentaries, but this is more a tribute to and deification of Maradona than a relevant documentary about his life. As proof of this, the film opens with a Baudelaire quote: “God is the only being who, in order to reign, doesn’t even need to exist.”

The film doesn’t tell us much that really matters, instead focusing on gossip about the personal life of Diego and his drug abuse (which is not quite explored), while his way of playing football, his dreams and desires, or details about his career are neglected. I don’t know if anyone wants to hear Maradona singing and talking about his political views, considering that he was a real football god. But, oddly, football is not the major topic here.

Kusturica introduces himself as the “Maradona of Cinema” and associates “El Diez” with some of his movies in an interesting metaphorical exercise. He also compares Maradona’s challenges in football with class struggles or with the tension between USA and Latin American countries, which is predictable due to Kusturica’s and Maradona’s political views. This lends a certain Robin Wood feeling to the scene.

Kusturica himself provides the narration of the “documentary” with some poetic, admiring and very cliché speech, which abounds in quotes by Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Jorge Luis Borges, Latin American writers. Kusturica abandoned the energy of his previous works because this is a very slow-paced presentation of a life story.

When Kusturica talks about Diego Maradona, it looks as if there’s nothing to tell, so all the speech and images are about the superficial aspect of the Argentinean former footballer.

The meetings between Kusturica and Maradó are supposed to look natural and spontaneous, but they fail in this regard. The viewer can easily tell that it is all staged, so it simply isn’t enjoyable or interesting to watch. Not even Kusturica, who can always show the beautiful side of things, can save this piece of mediocrity.

The Serbian confesses that he wanted to create the best documentary about Diego that was ever made, but this might be the absolute piece every filmed about “El Pibe de Oro.” It certainly is the worst film of Kusturica’s entire career. There’s also an exhibitionist segment about Kusturica, who here seems to exclaim “look at me, I’m great too!”

Strange though it may be, some of the things that the Serbian most harshly criticizes are present in this “documentary”: cheap appeals to popularity, superficial entertainment, and an egotistical perspective. This “documentary” doesn’t talk about the talent of Maradona and Emir – greats of football and cinema – but instead shows their weaknesses.

Emir Kusturica says that in the beginning they didn’t knew who Maradona was and, in the end, they still in the same place. This is precisely what this “documentary” does wrong: it fails to add anything pertinent or new. This is a film for those who know very little about Diego Armando Maradona and want to learn the basic, simple facts of who he was, what he did, and the problems he had in his personal life.

For those who really love Maradona and know lots of things about him, the film is very painful and boring because it doesn’t pay attention to the subtle details or the important things about Diego’s life.

For example, the film does not explore the beauty of his football playing, his Midas touch in Napoli where he triumphed with an underdog team, his dreams, childhood desires, or the extremely interesting conflicts with defenders such as Andoni Goikoetxea, the Butcher of Bilbao, known for causing several injuries to Maradona when the Argentinean was playing for Barcelona. The films pays its tribute, but the results is just that: a tribute and nothing more.

Author Bio: Pedro Bento is a portuguese samurai, who travels with his wakizashi sword into the infinity of his mind, always forgetting his way home. He doesn’t believe in inspiration moments, but he likes to hide in a secret place, where heavy metal is always blasting and no one can bother him, except his apathetic girlfriend Inês. Yes, he’s a loner.