One of the great under-reported stories out of WWII Europe involves the treatment of the Gypsies (‘Roma’ in the current terminology). This really isn’t too surprising, nationless & nomadic, who’s around to tell their story; what country would co-fund the film? With French citizenship and a mixed Algerian/Gypsy background, writer/director Tony Gatlif certainly brings the right cultural baggage . . . but he brings too much. This story of an extended Gypsy family rolling thru the French countryside, then suddenly asked to go against their nature, settle down or face some sort of exile (prison, concentration camp, extermination) plays up their wild nature in picturesque, as well as picaresque fashion. They don’t just travel, they gambol; they aren’t just natural musicians, they can fiddle the birds down from the trees. And their numbers include a sweetly crazed wildman, a regular violinistic Django Reinhardt; along with a pale French orphan boy who tags along, a gypsy at heart. But Gatlif doesn’t trust us with his set up, pointing out good guys and bad guys when we’re already on board, as if we were as childlike as his superstitious clan.* And he can’t stop himself from making the two sympathetic French townies the most interesting people in the film, showing when all is said and done that he knows exactly where his pain is buttered. Still, it’s a fascinating (and terrifying) period and Gatlif runs a smooth, visually sophisticated tour of the situation for us. If only he didn’t also make everything right down to the cow dung smell quite so worthwhile.
SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: *Then again, back in France, where kicking out Roma is still part of the political landscape, pointing out the Good Guys and the Bad Guys may not be quite so redundant.