SATURDAY REVIEW Time of the Gypsies – tragicomic, hopeless, at the outskirts of Europe

Already a fan of Emir Kusturica‘s movies since Arizona Dream, I kept Time of the Gypsies (1988) on my must-watch list for years. Circumstances made so that I only recently watched it. With a big liking for the soundtrack music by another Serbian artist, Goran Bregovic, by the music videos I anticipated a sad ending. I can tell you now how much I underestimated. 

Awarded at European film festivals since his debut, Kusturica won both top prizes at Cannes in 1989 – Best Director and Palme D’Or. Reviews all over the world praised his magic realism, recognised as the special mark of this Serbian director. By only taking a look at the movie poster you will get a glimpse into it – the young gypsy boy Perhan, with big glasses, hugs a turkey tight to his chest. In the background, waters burn with the colours of sunset.

Gypsy teenage love blossoms at Ederlezi celebration

Presented as Perhan’s night dream in the storyline, the actual scene combines dreamlike elements with real life events. One of the director’s great gifts stands in weaving the two in such a way as to show dream and reality make two sides of the same coin.

If you enjoy Balkan music, watching the Ederlezi video will give away a few core details of the story. That’s how you will also guess one tragic event bound to happen. Unfortunately, the censored version on YouTube skips the playful nudity of the two teenage lovers, Perhan and Azra, cradled by a small canoe. But it leaves more for you to enjoy in the actual movie. At the same time, it doesn’t reveal the depth of the darkness creeping in by the actual, and not the apparent end.

Why grandmother cried

Seen on the left of the video thumbnail, Perhan’s grandmother cries at the big holiday of Saint George (Ederlezi), while the community celebrates. It puzzled my partner to see her tears. He wondered what caused the grief on her face, as it made no sense when her people were rejoicing.

But Kusturica’s magic realism captures layers of meaning all across the strands of life lived in the slums. One of the strongest characters, the gypsy grandmother keeps the family together and fights for the happiness of her two grandchildren She brought them up when their mother died. Their pillar in that word of poverty, she keeps them safe, loved and cared for. A great negotiator, grandmother also gained the respect of her people due to her traditional, magic healer skills.

Re-watching the music video after the film, grandmother’s tears make sense. It still doesn’t to my partner. But we both agreed she represents the Earth – nurturing, accepting, never judging, and burying all the pains and the joys of everybody else. A solid presence, always strong, always there, the Earth feels all the pain of its children. But when an actual woman plays this role, a real human, in flesh and bones, you wonder how people can sometimes hold such burdens on their shoulders.

Growing up to a life a crime

But the movie portrays, as film critiques and reviewers have said before, the coming of age of Perhan. A gentle gypsy boy, with telekinetic abilities and a totemic turkey, Perhan falls in love for the first time. His first kiss sends him, girlfriend at his arm, on a mission to her parents’ house. With people in their community marrying in teenage years or even married off as pre-teens by their families, he asks for Azra’s hand. Unfortunately, the girl’s mother humiliates him for being poor and not affording to take her daughter into marriage.

Such begins his growing up to be a man. In an unfortunate mixture of circumstances, he sets off to Italy with the richest man in the community and his gang. Geeky looking, music loving, gentle boy rejects making money out of crime at first. But the gang master calls it work, and soon Perhan falls in the trap. Stealing and running the begging industry for the Sheik seem the only way he will provide for his ill sister and his girlfriend.

No hope for people born in the slums?

And here lies the real, deep tragedy. When he finds no other escape, Perhan repeats whatever many before and after him have done. Embracing crime as a way of life brutalises the heart and slightly kills off innocence, ideals, even love. No escape seems possible for people condemned to life in the slums.

The end of the film hits like an unbearable gust of bitter wind under skies sealed with lead on top of us.  Hope is lost and suffering ripples without end through the fabric of time.
DoesTime of the Gypsies talk, after all, about an ancestral curse which cannot be shaken?

 

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