There are deeper metaphors for nomadism, originating in Africa, the Middle East, and Asia, but none have been more thoroughly romanticized in popular culture than the spirit of the Gypsies. They have crossed all of the above geographical boundaries, eventually arriving in Europe and then the New World. The sight of a Gypsy Caravan carries associations with freedom, mobility, the hunger for experience, danger to women and children, and stealing chickens. Followers of contemporary TV reality shows know the yawning divide between the Gypsies of folklore in children’s storybooks and the Gypsies of today, living in cities or suburbs without connection to their traditions of rootlessness. I like this subject as a theme setter for a study of the differences between history and the movies.
Latcho Drom (1993)
Latcho Drom (“Safe Journey”) is a part documentary, part mythic account of the Gypsy odyssey. It employs little or no language and tells its story in the music of the Rom (Gypsy) people. The series of scenes is a metaphorical recapitulation of the westward migration of the Gypsies. What is most memorable after viewing this movie is the haunting voices of the women and children of the eternal caravan. There are flashes of joy in this music, extracted from a life of constant sorrow.
The concept of French/Romani filmmaker Tony Gatlif is to follow the migratory routes of the Gypsies from their Rajasthan homeland, in India, and on to Spain with superb filmed images and the music that accompanied the journey. It opens with a small group of wanderers traveling with a loaded ox cart to attend a wedding. A young boy sings a narrative song as they make their way over a forbidding landscape. When they arrive at the scene of the wedding, there is spirited singing and dancing. This initial episode is apparently meant to mimic the exodus of the Rajasthan Gypsies out of Afghanistan in the time of Mahmud of Ghazni, circa 1000 CE. It was Mahmud’s enslaving of the Gypsies in his domain, and their subsequent release, that marked the beginning of their long and difficult journey to the west. There is a detour to Egypt along the southern route, with scenes along the Nile.
Returning to the western route, there are views of boats approaching Istanbul and vignettes in the marketplace. This is the crossing from Asia to Europe. In Romania, there is a sad song, with a groaning violin, about the repressions of Nikolae Ceaușescu, who was ousted in the revolution of 1989. There is more heartache in Hungary as the Gypsies move on toward Germany. On a train, a woman and a little girl sing of the hatred they feel from the people of Europe. An old woman sings powerfully of the horrors of Auschwitz. This is followed by a more upbeat sequence where a little boy and his mother encounter a musical group of Gypsies at a remote railway station.
In a long episode, possibly in modern France, a group of horse-drawn wagons is camped beside a stream, carefree children play in the water while the horses are being washed. Two men come and tell the Gypsies they must move immediately. The horses are hitched to the wagons, and the caravan moves on. Now the Gypsies are living in an abandoned building in a city in Spain. They gather on the street where the women sing and dance. A young boy leads the singing. Authorities arrive and evict them from the premises. In the end, a Gypsy woman sits on a rise above the desolate Spanish city singing plaintively of the plight of her people under Hitler and Franco. And so it ends.
Queen of the Gypsies or, Gypsies Are Found Near Heaven (1975)
This picturesque Russian movie about traditional Gypsy ways is based on stories by Maxium Gorky. It opens with a scene of cloth-canopied wagons struggling along a muddy road. This is followed by some campfire philosophizing on the Gypsy life. Then the credits roll. The caravan has recently crossed the Carpathians into Austria-Hungary. It is the early 20th century and there are no signs of motor vehicles. The story centers on the efforts of two men, one a handsome Gypsy and the other a suave aristocrat, to win the affections of a young and entrancing Gypsy woman. The Gypsies are involved in horse-trading and horse thieving. When the aristocrat visits the encampment. he is humiliated by the headstrong temptress. It ends tragically for the Gypsy man and his beloved, both of whom die violently. Far more important than the details of the story is the evocation of the romance of Eastern European Gypsy life, including its dark side. Gypsy songs are used effectively in this movie.
Into the West (1993) – Irish/Travelers
The film opens with a montage of arresting shots of an old man in a green-canopied caravan wagon at the edge of the sea. He has found a beautiful white horse running wild. The scene shifts abruptly to the edges of the modern city of Dublin. The old man is the grandfather of a brood of Travelers (or Tinkers; they are not Romany like the Gypsies) living in poverty. He wants his family to come with him and live the “old life.” He has brought with him the fine white horse. He sits by the fire and tells stories to the children. Two of the boys develop a kinship with the horse and take it everywhere, even when they are busking on the city streets. They keep the horse in their urban apartment, but the authorities intervene, and take the horse away. An unscrupulous rich man buys the horse. The boys steal the animal from a horse show and make off to the west – the Wild West (they are addicted to American cowboy movies). They are off on their odyssey across the countryside, with their father and the authorities in pursuit. The father seeks the help of other Travelers, who are deeply suspicious of the authorities. The boys take refuge in a movie theater overnight, but the police find them and give chase. The horse takes his own direction. He gallops to the edge of the West, on the shores of the Atlantic, with the rich man’s helicopter in pursuit. The horse carries the youngest boy into the ocean. The drowning boy has a vision of his dead mother, and is rescued by his father. A police official arrives and tells the pursuers to pull back and “give these people some peace.” They drag the grandfather’s caravan onto the dunes and burn it as a belated funeral for the sainted mother. Gabriel Byrne produced and starred in this film. This is a very beautiful movie.