Wednesday, July 7, 2010

This Is Yugoslavia Calling: Time of the Gypsies (1989)

Emir Kusturica's minor masterpiece is as much a visual feast as it is an emotional one. Employing a largely amateur cast and the wonderful music of Goran Bregovic, it will delight you from its wonderful single-shot opening until the devastating ending.

The chaotic ensemble narration that Kusturica so efficiently used in Underground (1995) and Black Cat, White Cat (1999) owes its roots to Time of the Gypsies. Pehran is a Romany gypsy, who lives with his grandmother and uncle in a Yugoslavia of their own creation. His life is complicated by a multitude of things: he is hopelessly in love with Azra, whose mother's opinion of Pehran is not very high; his gypsy king uncle is neck-deep in debt; his sister needs a surgery to fix her leg ...

Fortunately for him there is a way out: Ahmed a fellow gypsy living in Italy has just returned and he offers to take Pehran's sister to Ljubljana for surgery. Pehran volunteers to accompany his sister. Unbeknownst to him, Ahmed has other plans for Pehran and his sister.

Perhaps it is a European cliche, but it is not an uncommon sight to see gypsy children begging in the streets of Europe. It is a dying phenomenon, but they are still visible in various European cities. The film does not try to paint a damning picture of the grotesque reality these young children suffer, but rather paint an allegorical portrait of a gypsy boy. Sure, it goes a little beyond Dickensian misery and melancholy, but Kusturica manages to veer away from a woe-is-them image and opts for an emotionally satisfying story.

Perhaps the film's biggest strength is in its wonderful magical realism. Pehran is telekinetic and his powers serves him well in the finale; corpses float in the air for no apparent reason; flying brides follow cars ... all of this happens without anyone batting an eyelid. Some of the dream sequences (which are clearly defined) have an absurd quality to them that makes you wonder if maybe what we are seeing is the reality of these people.

Without Ennio Morricone's music, the spaghetti westerns of Sergio Leone wouldn't have been what they are. Goran Bregovic's haunting music does exactly the same for Kusturica's films, and no better than here. It is a fantastic pastiche of gypsy music with Balkan melodies - the end result is simply fantastic. The dream sequence of Spring festival is a joy to listen to and it will also bring a sullen tear to your eyes.

One thing Kusturica does so well is to inject an absurd humour to an already fantastic premise and somehow make it even more hilarious. The film is littered with some amazing set pieces. My favourite is when the uncle literally lifts up the house in the middle of a rainy night after coming home having lost everything but his white undies. You have to see it to appreciate it - it is beyond ridiculous and magnificently hilarious.

Time of the Gypsies is a bizarre film, but it is inexplicably beautiful. If you are going to watch one film from Yugoslavia (or from what is left of it), then you won't do worse than this.

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