Sunday, March 3, 2013

Film Reviews: Gypsy & Faith, Love & Whiskey

"Gypsy"  ** 1\2 (out of ****)

The 16th annual European Union Film Festival in Chicago has gotten under way and last night I managed to attend screenings for two, somewhat similar, films. The first one we will discuss is "Gypsy (Cigan, 2011)" a Slovakian film, which was the country's official submission at the 84th annual Academy Awards. The film however, did not become one of the final nominees.

"Gypsy", directed by Martin Sulik, is an interesting film, which had great promise, but doesn't fully take advantage of all the dramatic possibilities which such a story could lend itself to. Mr. Sulik's film is partially based on Shakespeare's "Hamlet" told against the backdrop of a gypsy community in Slovakia. We follow a young boy, Adam (Jan Mizigar), who is caught in a major conflict. Already as a young boy Adam sees what life as a gypsy means. Limited opportunities. Leading a life where people look down upon you because of the stereotypes which proceed you. For example, all gypsies are thieves, have no education, tell fortunes, you know, the typical cliches associated with the minority.

However Adam wants to better himself. He wants to leave the community, especially after his father is found dead, some say murdered. But how can Adam succeed when he is a gypsy? Few people will give Adam a chance because of what he is. No matter how hard Adam may try to take a different path, people will always see him first and foremost as a "gypsy". This is something his "uncle" (Miroslav Gulyas), who has married Adam's mother, constantly tells him. Never trust "the whites" (meaning non-gypsies). They will never accept you. If they don't like you, you don't like them.

It is an interesting story. It is the story of any minority in America or Europe. African Americans or Hispanics may feel the same way in America. No matter what they may accomplish, no matter their level of education, all some people will see is a black person or a Hispanic. And so it is with gypsies. Only they have it worst since they are not politically organized. Make a film which is loaded with black stereotypes and see how fast Spike Lee and the NAACP will rally together, protest and hit the airwaves. Gypsies on the other will not do this. Why? In order to protest, to hit the airwaves, someone must step forward. And to step forward means to admit you are a gypsy. You are speaking on behalf of "your people". No gypsy wants to be identified as a gypsy. So the stereotypes and cliches continue.

Watching a film about gypsies makes me think of the work of Emir Kusturica and Tony Gatlif. Kusturica directed "Black Cat, White Cat" (1998) and "Time of the Gypsies" (1988). Two films which the gypsy community regards as classics. Even some non-gypsies do as well. The great film critic Michael Wilmington picked both as one of the top ten best films of their respective years. Mr. Gatlif  has given us "The Crazy Stranger" (1998) another classic. Not the mention the Serbian film "I Even Met Happy Gypsies (Skupljaci Perja, 1967)" a film at one time considered to be one of the finest Serbian films ever made (I have reviewed it).

In the case of Mr. Kusutrica and Mr. Gatlif, they provide us with a better sense of the gypsy community. That is where "Gypsy" goes wrong. We never truly sense who these people are. We never really get to know them. Minor attempts are made but I wasn't emotionally drawn into their story. I didn't come away feeling a true sense of the injustice gypsies are met with. The most powerful scene may be one in which we see police officers mistreat Adam and another gypsy boy. There is no doubt they are harsher with them because they are gypsies. But the film is almost too subtle. "Time of the Gypsies" truly shows us the poverty in which gypsies live in. We establish a better sense of community. In "Gypsy" we don't truly get to know anyone.

Too bad. This film showed great promise. It could have been the stuff great dramas are made of. Young boy, badly treated in  cruel world, tries to over come the odds and set himself on a different path. What could be better than that? But the heart is missing from this story.

"Faith Love & Whiskey"  ** (out of ****)

The other film I attended at the 16th annual European Union Film Festival was "Faith, Love & Whiskey" (2012) a Bulgarian film with a Chicago connection. The film's director, Kristina Nikolova, attended the University of Chicago.

Much of the criticism I had for "Gypsy" could also apply to this film as well. Here is another film with an interesting plot but doesn't allow us to really get inside it's lead character's head.

That lead character is Neli (Ana Stojanovska) a beautiful woman who moved to America, is engaged to a successful American man, Scott (John Keabler) and seems to have her life in order. Yet, one day, for no apparent reason, Neli packs up and leaves, heading back home to Bulgaria.

Once back home she meets an old flame, Val (Valeri Yordamov), a below-average looking, heavy drinking, tattooed, loser, who doesn't have a successful job and still lives with his parents. When Val and Neli meet a spark of passion ignites them and they begin an affair. What will Neli do? Will she give up her comfortable life in America? Or will the call of home and the familiarity of Bulgaria make her stay?

What I don't like about films like "Faith, Love & Whiskey" is they require the audience to fill in too many blanks. Watching the movie is like doing paperwork. We have to fill in too many plot holes. Why does Neli leave America? Well, because she got cold feet. Because she doesn't love Scott. Because she is unhappy in America. Because she feels cultural clash and is unable to deal with the fast-paced, work yourself to death lifestyle of America. All good, possible answers. The problem? None of which is explicitly explained.

"Faith, Love & Whiskey" is a relatively short film, 75 minutes. What it needed was 10 more minutes added. A better set-up into what is causing Neli's unhappiness. It also needed more conflict. You see Scott follows Neli to Bulgaria but never do we sense Neli is caught in a conflict over which man to pick; Scott or Val. Her mind is made up from the beginning of the film. Where is the struggle? At one point in the film Neli is asked why did she leave Bulgaria? A great question. She never answers it. Thus, we have more paperwork to do. We meet Neli's grandmother, who is very happy she is living in America about to marry a rich American (to Bulgarians all Americans are rich). So, did Neli move to America for her grandmother? Good theory. You may find elements to support that. But, nothing is spelled out for us.

On one level I like movies such as "Faith, Love & Whiskey". Movies where characters are called back home. Where they recapture a sense of who they are, where they come from. Never forgetting one's roots has always been an important theme for me on a personal level. But "Faith, Love & Whiskey" is not an emotionally rich experience. There is too much from the story missing. Had director Nikolova answered who Neli is, allowed the audience the chance to get inside her head, show the world from her perspective, this could have been a very rewarding film. The final product however leaves much to be desired.