L’Etranger Fou / The Crazy Stranger : France/Romania 1997 : Tony Gatlif : 102 mins
Endearingly shaggy comedy-drama, improvised around the thinnest wisp of plot: genial, wild-haired young Frenchman Stephane (Romain Duris) arrives in a remote Romanian village in search of Nora Luca, a Gypsy singer much loved by his late father. The local Roma community is initially hostile, but gradually accept Stephane after he first befriends blustery oldster Izidor (Izidor Serban), and then local ‘bad girl’ Sabina (Rona Hartner).
But this narrative is really just an arbitrary framework on which Algerian-Gypsy Gatlif strings colourful vignettes illustrating the richness of Roma life. He’s out to celebrate a remarkable culture that survives in Europe’s hidden corners, one whose Eastern roots are clearly exposed in the frequent bouts of singing and dancing. Perhaps he’d have been better off making it as a documentary – Gadjo Dilo is much more successful in terms of anthropology and good-time atmosphere than as a feature-film drama.
It takes forever to get going, bogged down by repetitive scenes where the constantly grinning Stephane struggles to make himself known across the language barrier – do we really want or need such a gormless intermediary as our ‘in’ to Roma culture? Even the best scenes tend to drag on and on, and a little of Izidor’s Zorba-the-Greek life-force routine goes a long way. As the film progresses, however, we thankfully see less of him and more of Hartner, who gives the movie (and Stephane) a powerful kick up the backside just when it needs one most.
The Sabina-Stephane romance – though signalled very clumsily in the first half – comes into its own in the latter stages, only for Gatlif to screw things up by taking a desperate detour into wildly apocalyptic melodrama: a misguided stab at a ‘big movie ending’. Luckily for all concerned, Gatlif adds a more measured, optimistic epilogue that redresses the balance: appropriately enough, his wisest decision is to end with a terrific sustained close-up of his trump-card leading lady.
22nd January, 2002
(seen Jan-20-02, Cineside, Newcastle)
by Neil Young
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