'Gypsy': Something's Rotten, This Time In Slovakia

Jun 26, 2012

Dad just died violently. Mom married the man who might be his killer. And now the dead man's ghost is appearing to his son.

That plot comes from Hamlet, of course, but Slovak director Martin Sulik's Gypsy is not otherwise Shakespearean. There are no soliloquies and little dialogue. The prince is 15 and inarticulate, and his Ophelia is entirely sane. She's about to be exiled from her community for the same reasons that nearly everyone else in this tale is victimized: poverty and prejudice.

Set in a small mountain hamlet in eastern Slovakia, Gypsy has a documentary-style naturalism; the location is real and most of the actors nonprofessional. Only the periodic appearance of that ghost — or a purloined ostrich — adds a note of the fantastic.

The film opens with a closeup of a pair of soulful brown eyes. They belong to Adam (Jan Mizigar), a kid with so much potential that he attracts the attention of Gadjo — a Romany word generally translated in the subtitles as "whitie." Adam is "black," as Eastern Europeans often refer to Roma, or gypsies.

The boy is a favorite of the local priest (professional actor Attila Mokos), the only non-Roma in the destitute village. Adam is also cultivated by a trio of visiting blonde- and red-haired ethnologists who are documenting Roma culture, not always with exquisite sensitivity. He's inspired to seek a better life by Jula (Martina Kotlarova), his almost-girlfriend. He even accepts legit jobs, an option few of his neighbors explore.

But the kid regularly gets into trouble, sometimes because he's trying to protect his glue-sniffing younger brother, Marian (Martin Hangurbadzo). Life doesn't get better when the boys' freshly widowed mother marries their uncle, Zigo (Miroslav Gulyas), the settlement's fixer, loan shark and crime boss.

Zigo tells Adam and Marian that stealing from whites is justified because non-Roma will abuse them at every opportunity. Arrested for a railyard theft, the boys learn that their stepfather is right, at least partially, when the cops brutalize them. But then they never would have gotten busted if Zigo hadn't insisted they join him in larceny.

Scripted by Sulik and Marek Lescak, Gypsy is direct and unfussy. The movie's stylistic simplicity places the occasional poetic moments in high relief. The scene in which Adam discovers a knife in a chunk of ice is as stunning as it is matter-of-fact. And the story's coda is gently but hauntingly surreal.

As in the films of Franco-Roma director Tony Gatlif (Latcho Drom, Gadjo Dilo), music is central; the priest leads the villagers in song, and the ethnologists delight in (and carefully record) the locals' exuberant folk-dance tunes. When Roma music isn't playing, composer Vladimir Godar provides Renaissance-style chamber music that's elegant, if sometimes a little too pretty for the story and its setting.

Gypsy won three jury prizes at the Karlovy Vary Film Festival in the Czech Republic, a country that also has a marginalized Roma community. The movie may not feel quite so urgent in the U.S., with its complex multicultural mix. But the film's local color is only a small part of its power. After all, Hamlet is not primarily about the state of Denmark.

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