Criterion Prediction #79: Time of the Gypsies, by Alexander Miller

8 Mar

Title: Time of the Gypsies

Year: 1988

Director: Emir Kusturica

Cast: Davor Dujmović, Borivoje Todorović, Ljubica Adzovic, Husnija Hasimovic, Sinolicka Trpkova, Zabit Memedov, Elvira Sali, Suada Karisik

Synopsis: Among the many curious residents of a gypsy village in the outskirts of the former Yugoslavia is Perhan, a spirited young man endowed with telekinetic powers. Perhan leaves his family behind to find his fortunes by joining Ahmed, a “Gypsy Sheik,” and his gang of thieves and con artists in the hopes that he’ll strike it rich so he can wed Azra, the girl of his dreams, and pay for his younger sister’s leg operation. Perhan insists that he won’t become a criminal, but circumstances have other plans for this clever, but naive young Romany man.

Critique:  When you step off the ledge of world cinema you dive head-first into The Time of the Gypsies; luckily this tumble leaves you in good hands because this highly energized fable is a madcap exploration of, well, everything. Stumbling onto a film about a subject I’m woefully ignorant of, by a director whose work is unknown was like opening a grab bag of animalistic imagination so wildly different and original watching it was a flooring experience. Perhan’s journey from humble romantic to a high-ranking criminal subordinate is allegorical, expressive, fatalistic, surreal and epic in terms of the film’s length and scope. The narrative pivots and swivels from comedic to tempestuous while maintaining a sense of humor and levity throughout the vibrant story beats. As Perhan is seduced by the lure of criminal life the path gets darker with petty thievery to human trafficking, all the while Kusturica ramps the film up with more dimension and style to a nearly overflowing point, but he knows just how much water his glass can hold. It’s neither a prettification nor means of justification but a clear-headed rendition that feels honest, if at times unpleasant.

Filmed in Yugoslavia, The Time of the Gypsies is astounding in its otherworldliness; there’s not a recognizable actor in the horde of people in the Romany village. It’s a rough looking crowd (I don’t think Sergio Leone could have found more homely mugs) but the affection and understanding the director seems to have for his characters makes it all the more beautiful; the biggest sign of respect is faithfulness.

The Time of the Gypsies became an enveloping experience (as a mini-series more so) that elaborates on such a breadth of material I couldn’t help but wonder why this singular title of such unique distinction isn’t a bigger deal in the conversation of world cinema?

What I love most about Kusturica’s direction is his flagrant disregard for cinematic rules and conventions. The Time of the Gypsies bears the signs of a scrappy, rough-hewn neo-realist venture; the film takes on the multifaceted dimensions of a love/coming of age story, seasoned with a crime tale, as well as a spiritual object lesson. It’s graphic but lyrical, even comedic, surreal but grounded. It’s richly layered in cultural mysticism and yet it never feels like a fantasy. The Time of the Gypsies is firing off in all directions, and the cast of Romany-speaking (or Gypsy) non-professional actors, whose substantial presence reinforce its authenticity. A film with a few barely visible limitations that marches to the beat of its own drum, it’s not for the faint hearted. At certain moments you can feel a staggering quality in the performances but in the greater scope of the overall experience this is but a minor quibble. Shown in two versions, the theatrical cut which runs at 140 minutes, the five episode miniseries clocks in at 270 minutes and is of course much more elaborate.

Why it Belongs in the Collection: The sheer impossibility of a movie like The Time of the Gypsies is something of a qualifier in itself, being unseen on a region-friendly DVD (forget Blu-Ray) release. One standout in particular is that The Time of the Gypsies exists as a feature film and a mini-series. As Criterion had done with Bergman’s Fanny & Alexander and Scenes from a Marriage, (and hopefully, someday with Face to Face) presenting a restored version of The Time of the Gypsies in both theatrical and the original five episode series would be a delight. Given the successful history, they’ve had with titles above I would like to think the same would go for this one as well. Kusturica might not have the name recognition of Ingmar Bergman but this lesser seen masterpiece would have a good home in The Criterion Collection as it would also shed some light on this highly original work.

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