Sunday, June 24, 2012

Martin Šulík's GYPSY (minus Mama Rose) has theatrical premiere at NYC's Film Forum

One of Shakespeare's masterpieces is turned into something less in the alternately compelling and unnecessarily otherworldly tale of a gypsy teenager in the present-day Czech Republic whose dad has died under mysterious circumstances, whose mom has now married dad's brother, and who is suddenly getting repeat visits from the dead dad. That's right: a play, one word, sounds like Sam wet. A not-quite-organic mix of neo-realism and the supernatural (trying to disguise itself as something a little psychological), GYPSY (Cigán), the new film directed and co-written (with Marek Leščák) by Martin Šulík -- is best when it concentrates on the life and times of our hero Adam and the community in which he lives. When the movie steals from the great Willie, it tends to come off as second-hand and melodramatic (not that Shakespeare wasn't both those adjectives, but, gosh, he had some language to back him up).

Backing up Mr. Šulík (shown at right) are a good story; interesting characters, well-drawn and acted by the ensemble; and -- primarily -- a fascinating look at what a gypsy community is like today, as the world grows ever smaller so that the moving from place to place that used to distinguish gypsy life (if one can believe all that we've seen and read about gypsies over the decades) is no longer practical or maybe even possible. I would have thought that all this would be enough for one movie but perhaps Šulík's idea from the beginning was to do Hamlet in modern-day and -dress, setting it in the gypsy community.

Beginning with a shot of a pair of riveting eyes that totally fill the screen, the filmmaker knows how to reel us in with a stylistic touch that immediately turns toward character definition. Shot in grungy blues, greys and browns so that a bright color, when it occasionally appears, pleasures us enormously, his movie never buries us in the dirt and muck as much as it forces us to understand the kind of moral universe in which its people abide -- a world that is equally mucky and dirty and more than a little unfair. All of us do what we must in order to live, but some of us must do a lot more, in a lot messier ways, to survive.

The screenplay sometimes comes up with a wonderful bit of dialog ("She was so beautiful, she didn't have to wash"), and its introduction of a group of "musical anthropologists" opens the movie up just a bit to a life for our protagonist that might exist outside the boundaries of his community. (Though the gypsies' sense of what's out there in the "other" world does seems charmingly off-base: "We'll go to London where they'll think we're Pakistanis, and they'll like us!" Ah, yes, Britain is know throughout the world for how welcoming it has been to its Paki population!)

This little group of "white" music lovers (the gypsies themselves refer to each other as "black") who arrive to record gypsy songs, while well fleshed-out, indulge in one scene in which they appear too stupid to be real. The "gypsy" joke one of them tells at the restaurant table hardly establishes "unconscious racism," as the press material notes. This is racism, conscious and ugly. What is most unbelievable about the scene is that one of this fellow's white co-workers, who keep asking the man to shut up, does not punch him in the face before he finishes the joke.

Forced thievery, arranged marriage, and a local priest (above, center left), who, though accused of being gay, is less a predator than a very genuine help to our hero -- all this conspires to make the movie real and meaningful. So what about this "ghost" who keep materializing? Well, you could imagine that this is the hero's own thoughts and remembrances taking form. But, then, what about the introduction of that knife-on-ice? The whole finale, in fact, seems a tad too easily achieved -- including those ostriches, which, like Chekhov's gun, if they appear once, you just know you're gonna see 'em waddle again.

Despite the melodrama, for those with a particular interest in gypsy culture, Gypsy will be unmissable. The friend with whom I attended the press screening, in fact, sent me a link to some interesting online gypsy information for further reading. Click here (to learn of an earlier and highly regarded and award-winning gypsy movie from the 1960s) and here (to access a well-received book of readings on the gypsy world). And of course, there is always the interesting, gypsy-filled oeuvre of filmmaker Tony Gatlif. Meanwhile, this Gypsy (107 minutes, in Slovak and Romany, with English subtitles) opens Wednesday, June 27, in New York City at Film Forum. Other playdates?  Haven't a clue, nor do I know the film's distributor, in order to be able to check a website there.

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