Film Review: Gypsy

A portrait of a denigrated people disguised as revenge tragedy, <i>Gypsy </i>is a window onto a way of life rarely glimpsed by outsiders.
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An amalgam of neorealism, expressionism and absurdity, Gypsy drapes its rococo aesthetics on the sturdy frame of tragedy, or what we’ve come to think of as tragedy. Director Martin Šulík, working with his co-writer Marek Leščák, borrows the plot from Hamlet in order to explore the plight of the Romany in the mountains of eastern Slovakia. As in Hamlet, there’s a perturbed spirit, a perfidious brother who usurps his sibling’s wife, and an idealistic young man trying to make sense of the contradictory world around him and struggling with his conscience as he summons the courage to embrace his fate.

The concept sounds contrived but the film works: The Romany, or Roma—dark-skinned gypsies who for centuries have been ostracized in Europe—might be said to have acted out their history in a context of pity and fear. Some 200,000 remain in rural Slovakia, often in crude settlements lacking running water, electricity and other amenities. Famously independent and fiercely opposed to assimilation, they tend to perpetuate their poverty, shunning formal education and surviving by stealing or selling drugs, or so goes the stereotype. They are also victims of an endemic racism that even the European Union admits is intransigent. (France this year deported about a thousand Roma, the exiles considered criminals of “foreign origin,” as the New York Times reported.)

Šulík and Leščák spent six months living in several Romany villages and filmed the movie in an actual encampment, a jumble of ramshackle huts covered in tarpaper and corrugated metal. The actors, even the leads, are all gypsies. “We wanted to shoot in an authentic environment with authentic people to help change the false image of the Roma presented in the media,” Šulík has said. Despite this didactic agenda, Gypsy doesn’t devolve into diatribe. The director’s Shakespearean storyline is complemented by cinematographer Martin Šec’s expressionistic panoramas and tableaus, perversely appealing in their poetic dishabille, and by composer Peter Mojžiš’s evocative score, very like the melancholic fiddles and dulcimers we associate with Appalachian culture.

The cast performs splendidly, with Janko Mižufár as fourteen-year-old Adam, and Miroslave Gulyas as Žigo, his thuggish stepfather, the standouts. Adam, like Hamlet, can’t decide whom to trust or what his course of action should be. His mother (Miroslava Jarábeková) is happy to be remarried to the man he suspects killed his father (Ivan Mirga, appearing as the ghost), while his girl friend (Martinka Kotlárová) seems equally prepared to compromise her affections should a wealthy suitor come courting. Adam, like his compatriots, is learning that he is destined to lead a marginal life, shunned for his dark skin and bohemian lifestyle, and although he resists the impulse to nurture grudges, the insults and slurs daily tossed his way wear him down. (The film features a birth scene in which the staff at the local hospital barely acknowledge that Romany are humans, too.)

Some scenes in Gypsy have a New Wave look, others border on the surreal, as when a couple of cocky teenagers try to repay loans from Žigo with stolen ostriches (the birds make a bizarre encore in the film’s climax). Running away from his mother’s wedding celebration, Adam picks up a handful of dirt and flings it into the air, the cloud of dust spreading like a miasma over a nearby river, one of several lyrical moments the filmmakers insert to annotate the unfolding narrative. A good deal of screen time is given over to scenes at the local church, where the parish priest (Attila Mokos) does his best to keep the kids occupied with boxing and choir practice; to the drudgery of work available to Romany men, like cleaning toilets on commuter trains; and to the insularity of gypsy culture, where petty criminals command respect for trading in pilfered tee-shirts and siphoned gasoline.

The parallels between Gypsy and Hamlet become more tenuous as the film progresses, but at a certain point the analogy no longer matters: The Roma culture, defined by abject poverty and indomitable pride, becomes the film’s plot and theme. This stark dichotomy invokes, appropriately enough, the words spoken by the Player King in Shakespeare’s tragedy: “Our wills and fates do so contrary run…Our thoughts are ours, their ends none of their own.”