We’re trained to see movies as little more than filmed plays. And not just any plays, but those that rely heavily on words to tell a story or create a mood.
The power of cinema, of course, is that such reliance isn’t necessary. If a picture is worth a thousand words, then moving pictures are worth all the words ever written.
French filmmaker Tony Gatlif understands that concept well. His film “Latcho Drom,” which is Romany for “Safe Journey,” is 103 minutes of imagery and music that attempts to tell the story of Gypsies and their wandering existence through the Asia, Africa and Europe of today.
Following in the path of such visual travelogues as “Koyaanisqatsi” and “Baraka,” Gatlif’s film boasts no dialogue and virtually no subtitles other than song lyrics sung by Gypsies of all ages.
There’s a down side here. The movie’s lack of literal references doesn’t always work to its benefit, for Gatlif doesn’t focus on any one family anymore than he does any single country. And as the film moves from country to country, replacing the deserts of India for the damp landscape of Slovakia and the green countryside of France, it’s often difficult to tell just exactly where we are.
This style is bound to bore, if not irritate, some moviegoers, especially anyone unwilling to break away from mainstream filmmaking and its insistence on clearly defined narrative structure.
But here’s the good news: Those willing to experience something new just might enjoy “Latcho Drom,” not just because of Gatlif’s unusual storytelling technique but because of his decision to explore a culture most of us know only through modern mythology.
To that end, his merging of one country’s Gypsies with another serves a definite purpose: It unifies the overall culture’s experience.
In essence, Gatlif’s camera acts as another member of each Gypsy band that it captures on film. Always unobtrusive, it accompanies an extended family on a barefoot walk across the hot sands of India. It sits in the rafters with a young man as he watches an Egyptian woman belly-dance on a make-shift stage. It hugs the ground as a Gypsy band seeks refuge from the wet soil of Eastern Europe by building a small city of platforms in trees. It sits impassively as a young boy watches Spanish officials wall up the doorway of an abandoned building.
Gatlif is interested mostly in appealing to the visual sense. Striking images abound: a desert tree aflame with candles, a hand outstretched to the brightly lit moon, the furtive smiles of two women being serenaded by a redturbaned man, the anger etched across a woman’s face as she sings of the prejudice her people endure.
But Gatlif doesn’t ignore our hearing, either. Sounds pass on subtle messages, whether they whisper of combs passing through women’s hair, tell of a train’s passing with clackety-clack efficiency or capture the whine of an automobile speeding along on a modern highway. In “Latcho Drom,” however, the sounds most noticeable are those associated with music.
Music is a traditional way of expressing the emotions aroused by life. The Gypsies of Gatlif’s movie sing of everything from joy to grief and, in the process, bridge every musical style from desert rhythms to flamenco to what sounds almost like a Dan Hicks-style Western swing.
When all else is silence, the Gypsy songs speak volumes. In one notable sequence, a concentration-camp survivor sings of the horror of Auschwitz. In another, a gypsy band’s impromptu concert causes a non-Gypsy boy to dance and his sad-eyed mother to smile.
The main message of these songs appear unmistakable. They’re about the reality of Gypsy life - a life in which travel is a destiny that, sad or no, cannot be denied.
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: “Latcho Drom” *** 1/2 Location: Magic Lantern Cinemas Credits: Directed by Tony Gatlif, featuring Gypsy musicians, singer and dancers from India, Egypt, Turkey Romania, Hungary, Slovakia, France and Spain. In Romany with English subtitles. Running time: 1:43 Rated: Not rated (but equivalent to a PG)
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