MONDO (France, 1996) *** 3/4
In 1929, Jean Vigo who was called "The Rimbaud of cinema" and died at age 29, made an experimental, classic short called "A Propos de Nice," in which he treated slices of life in that city, juxtaposing with irony the wealthy, mostly old, tourists and with affection, the locals. In a sense, "Mondo" is the inheritor of that film. It is about the meanderings of its young protagonist, explorations that are put in the context of the city and several Nicois (Nice dwellers). All , like Mondo, are treated with immense sympathy and not a hint of mockery. And none of them reacts to the youngster in the standard way, i.e. "Gypsies are undesirables, thieving and smelly."
All the performers are amateurs. Mondo is played by Ovidiu Balan, a Rumanian gypsy about whom I know nothing (I am writing this review without benefit of press information) except that after the movie was made he and his family were deported back to Rumania. He lives by what is commonly known as "his wits, " but without all the tricks and illegalities this expression may imply.
First he is seen at one of those great farmer markets where he scrounges for discards. He sleeps outdoors on the grass. (In a surreal sequences, he is near statues of famous men and there's a voice-off commentary. One of the busts is Balzac's) \
One of the first locals he meets is a man on a bench, reading Flaubert . Out of a blue sky the kid asks him "Will you adopt me?" It's a brief, heart-rending moment that will be repeated later to a passerby. (In both cases the boy runs off). Mondo is curious, friendly, lovable. His smile is infectious, irresistible. I would adopt that boy without thinking twice about it.
He then encounters a kindly ex-sailor who is fishing, teaches the child, discusses exotic ports with him, and later teaches him the alphabet in the most ingenious way. In succession, Mondo also meets aged Dadi (aka Dove Man, as he keeps two birds) who is played by real homeless Scot; a magician played by famous tighrope walker Philippe Petit; an older woman, Thi Chin in her big house and garden (of Eden?) who cares for him when he has a fever and befriends him. Seeing her garb he asks "Are you Vietnamese?" "No, I am a Jew born in Vietnam and I came here years ago." The cast includes a Turkish Kurd woman, a political refugee, who sings beautifullyand adds to the splendid variety of music here; a postman who is areal postman; and other "real people."
As Mondo explores the world around him, looks and listens, asks questions, tries his first elevator, gets soaked in rain and still scrounges for food, the persons he comes in contact with are just about all kind, including a bakery lady who repeatedly offers him bread. There'something both subtle and obvious as Mondo is placed in an environment of enticing French foods, supermarkets, fresh fruit and vegetables--yet at times has to get his sustenance from nature.
J.M. Le Clezio, one of France's best writers, has found an ideal director in Mr. Gatlif. Their collaboration results in something entirely fresh, novel, yet in the great French tradition of films in which children are seen with undertsanding, love, realism but also imagination. As in the classic "Zero for Conduct" by the same Jean Vigo mentioned above. As in the films of Francois Truffaut and several filmmakers of all periods.
Is it an accident that a welfare officer says that Mondo is "a wild child," the title of a Truffaut movie? Or that in Truffaut's "The 400 Blows" the child hero worships Balzac whose statue we see and who is also the author of "Colonel Chabert," a name that appears on a prospectus that the postman hands Mondo as "mail for you"?
The appeal, the warmth of the boy Mondo and of the movie "Mondo" cannot be described. Tony Gatlif, the filmmaker of Rom (Gypsy) lineage who made, among other Rom-themed movies, "Latcho Drom," combines in with much talent and in credible ways, fact and imagination, emotion without sentimental schlock, selective realism --extremely well photographed and edited --without cheating.
Mondo disappears as mysteriously as he had appeared. His absence, like Gypsy magic, causes odd perturbances. The last words of the film's are voice-off: "We looked for Mondo everywhere. Then we forgot a little."