Slav labour

Film byJonathan Romney

Emir Kusturica is currently the bogeyman of European cinema - only in part because of his larger-than-life reputation for brawling, name-calling and profligate movie-making. His last film, Underground, which won the Palme d'Or at Cannes, was undoubtedly an "event movie", even though its box-office performance was unimpressive. But its broadly allegorical, cartoon-folktale depiction of postwar Yugoslavia led to the Bosnian director - born in Sarajevo of mixed Serb and Muslim origins - being attacked as an apologist for Serbian militarism. The debate around the film was particularly heated in France, with the philosopher Bernard-Henri Levy launching a heated polemic against Kusturica, resulting in the director's declaration that he would never make another film.

Underground was set and shot in Belgrade, but aside from that it was hard to see quite how the accusations would stick. The only clear point, in a confused magic-realist history of the Belgrade community, was that the film was at once nostalgic for the old unified Yugoslavia and a satire on the mystifications by which the Tito regime claimed to unite it. The story of a community tricked into hiding for years literally underground, Kusturica explained, depicted the "metaphorical cellar" that Tito had created. Meanwhile, Kusturica himself, now based in France, continues to refer to himself as Yugoslavian and to speak of the old days in unambiguously nostalgic terms.

Having quickly broken his vow to retire, Kusturica has now made what seems a deliberate attempt to evade further controversy. Black Cat White Cat - again filmed around Belgrade - is a knockabout farce that presents itself as pure entertainment in an entirely facetious vein. Made under the twin influences of Fellini and GarcIa Marquez, it's set in a rural gypsy milieu, among rival clans of Romany gangsters. The gangling, rubbery Bajram Severzdan plays Matko, an amiable chancer who lives in a crumbling encampment by the Danube and who strikes a deal with the gypsy mob godfather Grga Pitic (Sabri Sulejmani, the skeletal owner of the most terrifying dental work ever seen on screen). Grga sponsors Matko's attempted petrol heist, but the whole business ends with Matko's son obliged to marry "Ladybird", a gangster's daughter. In the explosive climax, the calamities pile up, as do the extraordinarily naff wedding gifts.

The plot makes some degree of sense, but you don't follow it too closely, dazzled as you are by the sheer grotesqueness of the cast, an endless parade of bizarre phantasms. There's a Scarface-style mobster with a coke-stuffed crucifix; a techno theme song ("Pitbull! Terrier!") and two molls to provide backing vocals; a green-haired henchman; an ailing grandfather supplying the film's keynote when he yells out for "Music! Aggression!". There are also limitless supplies of farm life: a vast pig idly feasting on a rusty car; the cats of the title who skitter throughout as an anarchic leitmotiv; and armies of geese, ceaselessly bustling across the screen, just to keep things moving.

Kusturica might not seem the most discerning of comic directors - whenever things flag, just throw a goat at someone, especially if they're riding a motorbike. What's extraordinary is the concertedness of the juggling act - the sense of the world as perpetual circus. Everything comes down to acrobatics: stunts with sidecars, a brass band strung up on a tree trunk, a grisly routine with a railway level crossing. This sort of humour, owing as much to Tex Avery as to Fellini, makes more sense in a strictly farcical milieu than in the overtly allegorical Underground. Here, it becomes peculiarly a self- referential form of comedy that does not actually require you to find it funny - the point is not so much to laugh as to marvel at it.

The film is an expression of faith in universal confusion; Kusturica proposes a cosmology of chaos, in which all things are bound to collide, endlessly and permanently. Whether this worldview is open to political interpretation is another question. In the film's gypsy universe, set outside and in opposition to the overground world, everything is up for grabs, everything is run by crazed brigands: you'd be within your rights to read it as another cartoon of Yugoslavia, if not specifically of Serbia. Even the way Kusturica orchestrates his comedy routines is open to such interpretation. It's never simply a question of several things happening at once - iceblocks tumbling downstairs, while a bystander juggles with grenades - but of things happening in different directions. All objects, people and animals have their own agendas here, and are all shoehorned into the same space only by the most tenuous and precarious accord.

This may be the worst possible time to release a Kusturica film in Britain - even Underground, with its obvious headline appeal, found scant audience, and a screwball, Serbian-shot farce may strike many people as not altogether appropriate viewing during the Kosovo crisis. But Black Cat White Cat deserves an audience, arguably more than the confused Underground: though he's rather less ambitious here, Kusturica is actually on top of his game. Think of the film as The Beverly Hillbillies fuelled by slivovitz, and its appeal quickly becomes apparent.

"Black Cat White Cat" (15) opens on 7 May at selected London cinemas