Friday, March 2, 2007

Review of Time of the Gypsies

Emir Kusturica should have been a sure thing for me. I like Yugoslavia. I like magical realism. It’s like we were made for each other. Yet, my first experience with Kusturica’s work, “Underground” (1995) didn’t have the impact it should have.

The story, quite clever, follows two brothers during WWII. The younger leads the townsfolk into a vast underground cavern where they build and operate an armory to help the war effort. The older brother risks his life above ground to provide food and supplies and deliver the finished goods. The film takes a very dark turn when the older brother secretly decides to continue the arrangement long after the war has ended, using the weapons to become a wealthy arms dealer.

“Underground” possesses the type of absurdist premise and imagery that I deeply appreciate and, indeed, I experienced many moments of rare amazement at Kusturica’s vision and craft. However, the films epic 3+ hour length and unfunny (to me, at that time) characters offset my final score to a 7/10.

My second experience was even worse: Kusturica’s semi-autobiographical “When Father Was Away on Business” (1985) had all the sluggish pacing of “Underground” without the insight, imagery or imagination. Though it was loved by the critics for its charming, realistic look at adolescence under Yugoslavia’s Soviet occupation, it got a lackluster 5/10 from me. The traditional Film Walrus formula for such things is as follows:

Coming-of-age format + War + Male sexual awakening + Resounding message of hope and goodwill despite hardships and tragedy = Eyerolls

So it was with some surprise and with great pleasure that I watched and loved “Time of the Gypsies” (1989) after giving Kusturica a year long break. The protagonist is Perhan, an adolescent gypsy boy with an eccentric family, a talent for the accordion and telekinesis. His father is an unemployed irresponsible gambler and his grandmother is a benevolent witch. His only friends are a turkey (who turns in an outstanding performance) and a girlfriend that he can’t marry until he saves up a massive dowry.

A local gangster owes the family a favor and agrees to pay for Perhan’s sister to get a leg operation. Perhan accompanies her to a hospital and travels with the gangster to Milan to make a decent living. As Perhan works the mean-streets of Italy’s underworld and gradually climbs from low-life to lower-middle, he loses his innocence and risks his soul.

Within the framework of a deceptively simple rise-and-fall narrative (something like “The Goodfellas” without the glitz) is an endless series of brilliantly constructed scenes. The acting, mood and imagery remains absurdly balanced between black humor and touching tragedy. In a rare synthesis of gypsy clichés, Kurstica manages to capture simultaneously both the poverty-stricken, petty-crime melancholy and the free-wheeling, exotic magic of Perhan’s life.

Especially noteworthy is the score by Goran Bregovic which manages to find a place where both accordions and oboes can frolic and be happy. The cast, with almost no exception, turns in stellar performances even by my overly-skeptical standards for child acting. Kurstica, who was clearly fully committed to his material, grabs dozens of memorable shots and films entirely in the Gypsy language of Romany (a cinematic first).

Walrus Rating: 9.5

1 comment:

Mad Dog said...

“Coming-of-age format + War + Male sexual awakening + Resounding message of hope and goodwill despite hardships and tragedy = Eyerolls”


At any rate, it sounds like a really cool movie. One I wish to see one day. :3