Cinema: A People Cursed with Magic

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TIME OF THE GYPSIES Directed by Emir Kusturica

Screenplay by Gordan Mihic and Emir Kusturica

Time of the Gypsies -- what a drab handle for such a sprawling, enthralling entertainment. The title promises a 60 Minutes-style expose on purse snatching and child exploitation in the tourist capitals of Europe. And is anyone in a hurry to see a 2-hr. 22-min. film in Romany with English subtitles? As it happens, the movie does take time for side trips from Yugoslavia to Italy, to show young Gypsies stealing and pimping at their bosses' stern whims. But its heart is in a Serbian village of Gypsies, where outcasts find a family and fevered dreams are as tangible and intimate as a relative come to sleep in the crowded shack called home.

"When God came down to earth," a villager says, "he took one look at the Gypsies and took the next flight back." But God left a couple of things behind: the gift of magic -- black magic or white, and every rainbow shade in between -- and the curse of belief in it. Women levitate as they give birth; the veils of dead brides float in the rank breeze. Proud, loving Hatidza (Ljubica Adzovic) has the power of healing, and her grandchild Perhan (Davor Dujmovic) can do a few telekinetic tricks too. We won't even discuss -- because they come at the end of this beggar's banquet of a film -- the walking outhouse and the killer fork.

Perhan is a comer, and not just because he can move a spoon up a wall with his bare will. The teenager is eager to escape his wastrel uncle Merdzan (Husnija Hasimovic), who practices Tai Chi and chases every village female over twelve. Perhan is desperate to pay the hospital bills for his crippled sister (Elvira Sali) and earn enough money to marry his girlfriend Azra (Sinolicka Trpkova). He must do it quickly, before Merdzan can get his lecherous hands on her. "Make sure her feet don't see more sky than earth," Perhan warns Grandma when he hires himself out to the richest, meanest man in town. Ahmed (Bora Todorovic) is a blustery gangster who will teach Perhan the rules of petty crime but will take a long time to learn how fierce are the strains of loyalty and revenge in his brightest pupil. Ahmed will finally get the point on the day he dies: his wedding day.

Yes, this is a Gypsy Godfather, its spiky authenticity achieved by an almost all Gypsy cast. Director Emir Kusturica (When Father Was Away on Business) neither romanticizes nor flinches from the popular image of Gypsies as a primitive, stealthy people. But he also sees them as a Third World nation of wanderers, displaced and dispossessed in the midst of European bounty. They can survive only on their dreams and their cunning; the film's buoyant visual style is true to both. It is the style of magic realism, the blending of grit and sorcery that soars through the novels of Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Kusturica knows that magic realism finds its perfect home in the movies, and in this story. On the big screen everything must be real because we see it. And in the time of the Gypsies, it is always once upon a time.