Late winter is a barren season for Hollywood movies. The Christmas hits have petered out, while cinema’s spring crop has yet to appear. But that leaves theatre screens more available for European imports. And two award-winning foreign-language movies now being released across North America offer exotic relief from Hollywood’s familiar menu: Italy’s Cinema Paradiso and Yugoslavia’s Time of the Gypsies. A nostalgic tale of a projectionist growing up in a Sicilian village, Cinema Paradiso won a Special Jury Prize at last year’s Cannes International Film Festival. More recently, it received the Los Angeles-based critics’ Golden Globe Award for Best Foreign Film, and is nominated in the same category for the March 26 Oscars. Time of the Gypsies, a sprawling saga of passion, honor, vengeance and magic, premiered at Cannes, where its Yugoslavian creator, Emir Kusturica, was named best director. Although utterly different in tone, both movies are about
the power of village traditions. And in each case, the drama focuses on a young man undergoing a troubled apprenticeship.
Unabashedly sentimental, Cinema Paradiso unfolds as an extended flashback. Salvatore, a successful Italian film-maker, answers the telephone one day to learn that his boyhood mentor, Alfredo, is dead. Salvatore’s memories take him back to the Sicilian village where, as a small child nicknamed “Toto,” he first kindled his love affair with the movies. An altar boy who finds the local cinema more awe-inspiring than the church, Toto pesters Alfredo (Philippe Noiret), the projectionist, into letting him spend time in the projection booth. The young boy scavenges strips of celluloid that Alfredo cuts from movies at the request of the parish priest. The priest previews every reel in private, ringing a bell at scenes that he finds offensive—which include all depictions of kissing.
As Salvatore comes of age, kisses finally find
their way onto the screen—and into his life. With the church losing ground to popular culture in the 1950s, the cinema becomes the community’s secular hearth. And after a tragic accident forces Alfredo into retirement, he passes the torch to the adolescent Salvatore, who inherits his job as projectionist.
The movie demands a certain suspension of disbelief. French actor Noiret’s glowing performance as Alfredo is filtered through the voice of another actor dubbing his lines into Italian. There is also a jarring lack of resemblance among the three actors who portray Salvatore as a young boy, an adolescent and a grown man. Meanwhile, the other characters seem to age at wildly uneven rates. But the movie casts a spell of such gentle enchantment that its use of cinematic licence is easily forgiven.
The script was born from an autobiographical impulse. Italian writer-director Giuseppe Tornatore got the idea while visiting his native village near Palermo, Sicily, where he found the local theatre in ruins. The village later served as the location for the film. Although Tornatore is just 33, he conjures up nostalgia for the 1940s and 1950s with convincing affection. Many of the scenes take place in a crowded cinema, with cigarette smoke drifting through the projector beam. The screen flickers with images of John Wayne cowboys, Kirk Douglas heroes—and screen kisses on film that has the fine-grain cracks of a vintage canvas. Tornatore has created a loving tribute to the movies, making them seem as fragile
and as fleeting as youth itself.
Time of the Gypsies features another young protagonist who learns about kissing from the movies—projected on a bed-sheet screen in a makeshift village theatre. But in contrast to the uneventful whimsy of Cinema Paradiso,
Time of the Gypsies is a saga brimming with passion and desperate acts. It could be subtitled “Everything You Always Wanted to Know about Gypsies but Were Afraid to Ask.” All the stereotypes are vividly confirmed: the caravans and campfires, the magicians and midgets, the men with gold chains who sell babies and abduct children, the cursed weddings, the nights of drunken lunacy, the melancholic trance of accordions and violins.
But the movie’s gypsy characters remain defiantly sympathetic—perhaps because the movie itself bears an unmistakable stamp of authenticity. Most of the dialogue is in Romany, the gypsy language. The majority of the cast members are gypsies with no prior acting experience—most of them illiterate. And Kusturica, whose camera clings to
the action like a documentary eye, directs with such breathtaking energy and vision that even the most fantastic sequences seem undeniably real. Time of the Gypsies is an extraordinary movie, an elemental drama swirling with savage winds and raw emotion. It is almost 2Vz hours long. But the images are so rich that, despite a circuitous plot, it is enthralling from beginning to end.
The story focuses on Perhan (Davor Dujmovic), a teenage gypsy boy with a pet turkey and magic powers who falls in with the wrong crowd. A gypsy gangster, Ahmed (Bora Todorovic), lures Perhan from his village, promising to buy hospital treatment for his young sister, whose leg is stunted by a bone disease. Posing as a benevolent godfather, Ahmed takes Perhan to Milan and conscripts him into a gang that lives in trailers on a windswept vacant lot. In the hope that he might earn enough money to build a house and marry his village sweetheart, Perhan succumbs to a life of crime—and turns his back on the honest values of his mystical grandmother (Ljubica Adzovic). The movie is a tragedy of village innocence corrupted by city greed. But its gypsy spirit elevates it from melodrama to magic realism. And it ends on a note of happy mischief. Cinema Paradiso conjures up a lost paradise; Time of the Gypsies is a story of paradise lost—and the tribe that seems determined to steal it back.
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