Movie Reviews by Edwin Jahiel

LATCHO DROM (Safe journey) (France, 1993) *** 1/2

Written and directed by Tony Gatlif. Produced by Michele Ray. Photography, Eric Guichard. Editing, Nicole D.V.Berckmans. Music consultant, Alain Weber. Final song by Tony Gatlif. Design and art work, Denis Mercier.Cast: Gypsy musicians from 8 countries. A Shadow Distribution (Waterville, Maine). 103 min. No rating. At the Art Theater.
Many North Americans are familiar with CD-ROMs, but not with seedy Roms. In Europe it's the other way around. Rom is what Gypsies call themselves in their language (Romany). They slowly migrated westward from northern India about one thousand years ago. Now they live all over the world but mainly in Europe, which they reached in the early 14th century.

The Rom refer to all non-gypsies as "gadje," a pejorative word, the way "barbarian" was used by the Ancient Greeks for all non-Greeks. The "gadje" have repaid the Rom by despising them as undesirables, thieves and other nasty things. Of course, a few films have gone to the extreme of romanticizing the Gypsies. Get a video of a darkened Marlene Dietrich and Ray Milland falling for her in "Golden Earrings" (it is fun kitsch).

"Latcho" sounds to me like the word for "Good" in Serbo-Croatian and other languages; "Drom" comes from the Greek "dromos" meaning "road" and was incorporated into the Romany language."Latcho Drom" is a wish that literally says "Good Road," i.e. 'have a good trip." In French it was correctly translated as "Bonne Route." In any case, all versions are applicable to the ever-ambulant Gypsies.

Director-writer Tony Gatlif, a citizen of France born in Algeria, is a Rom. Most of his films are on Gypsy subjects. "Latcho Drom" was followed by "Mondo" (1996) and "Gadgo Dilo" ("Crazy Stranger) (1997). "Latcho Drom" was produced by Michele Ray, a famous reporter and the wife of the equally famous film director Costa-Gavras. (There is an Alexander Gavras listed as Assistant Director too).

The movie is more theme than subject. Its non-plot couldn't be simpler. Gatlif's cameras and microphones focus on Gypsy musicians, in Rajastan (India), Egypt, Turkey, Romania, Hungary, Slovakia, France and Spain, main stations in the wanderings of the Gypsies. It is beautifully photographed by Eric Guichard ("Seven Years in Tibet") in 35mm. widescreen, with superior sound.

Songs range from exuberantly joyous to plaintive. Vocal, instrumental , and generally with dances, the pieces are quite different from one another. To a specialized musicologist, there may be common threads running below the different "numbers," but not to most listeners. The common ground is that all of the items sound like the ethnic music of the countries they are performed in. In simple terms, thanks to the Gypsies there's a two-way traffic: the Rom music has been influenced by that country's music, and the country's music, by its Gypsies. Much that would have died out of a given land's musical heritage has been preserved in one form or another by the Rom tradition.

The opening salvo, in India, features lavishly and ornately dressed women, a man reciting energetic love poetry, and much else. Unlike documentaries, there is no commentary, printed on the screen or as voice-over. Nor is there any dialogue or viewer orientation. Nothing is identified, who the performers are, what country they are in. What the words mean is only occasionally subtitled.

Yet the film has impact, grows on you and involves you in odd ways. If you're expecting what most of us think of as typically gypsy music, initially you're in for surprises The Rajastan part sounds Indian but not quite. It may be somewhat familiar to the few Westerners who have seen those Indian movies that are so popular in the subcontinent but almost never reach western theaters. Yet even then, the gypsy sounds feel like cousins to Indian sounds, not like siblings.

We are then transported, with no transition (as in the rest of the film) to Egypt, where an ensemble performs an Arabic-sounding, vivacious melody on love, in Arabic (I could not tell if this was pure or a mixture of Arabic and Romany), with a ghaziya dancer moving rather sexily.

By the rear wall of a large cafe in Turkey, a teen-ager sings, nicely, a Turkish-like song.The all-male clientele, with their backs to her, face raptly the instrumentalists at the opposite end. In the streets Gypsies are selling things. A man with a telescope sells looks at the sky. I thought of conjunctivitis.

In Romania comes the shock of recognition as finally the music corresponds to our notions of gypsy melodies. A solo violinist/singer celebrates - in Romanian - the new freedom, showering the late dictator Ceaucescu with insults. He uses a normal bow but alternates with a single horsehair that draws eerie, fascinating sounds. Then you even meet happy Gypsies, smiling, swaying, dancing, as skillful players (strings, cymbalom, clarinet, accordion, flute) play for their own people.

A montage of a galloping horse leads to the Iron Horse, the railroad. The rails speak of deportation (as for the Jews) by the Germans to extermination camps. In a train car, a duet by, probably, a mother and a daughter, has as its leitmotif "The whole world hates us -- we're always being hunted and thrown out " Discrimination, exclusion, disdain, persecution are the ovewhelming themes and connecting thread of the various "serious" pieces.

In Hungary, the Gypsies use spoons, knives and a metal pot for infectious rhythm. There, and in Slovakia, the musical territory becomes increasingly familiar to our ears. In a Central European snowy landscape, barbed wire and tattooed arms speak of Auschwitz. There's the surreal sight of the Gypsies "camping out" atop trees. Men sing of wandering and persecution.

>From destitution to near-luxury. In France, the "gitans" have caravans. But then two locals, one with a hunting gun, make the Gypsies leave their encampment. In the Camargue (Southern France) where there is an annual Gypsy Festival, there is terrific guitar and violin jazz a la Django Reinhardt and Stephane Grappelli. And in Spain, the Gypsies squat in empty buildings, are evicted by the authorities who brick up doors and windows. Yet the Gitanos sing, clap and dance for themselves (there's an amazing boy-singer) with the joys and sorrows of Flamenco.The film concludes with a threnody about the unwanted. It is sung by a woman on a hill top overlooking a city's public housing -- "for whites only," I kept thinking.

Copyright © Edwin Jahiel

Movie Reviews by Edwin Jahiel