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Dom za Vesanje (1989)
(aka Time of the Gypsies)

A review by Damian Cannon.
Copyright © Movie Reviews UK 1998

An interesting if not entirely successful stroll through the Romany culture of Yugoslavia, Time of the Gypsies occasionally scales blissful heights. In the Skopje ghetto, Gypsy families are squashed close together in a subsistence level existence. Anyone who can get out does so, like the rich and influential Ahmed (Bora Todorovic). Having made a bundle in Italy, Ahmed returns surrounded by cohorts to gamble with men like Merdzan (Husnija Hasimovic). Since the latter inevitably loses, Merdzan's lime-baking family is especially poor. Only his mother (Ljubica Adzovic) keeps the wolf from the door; she uses her powers to heal sick locals.

With two rapidly growing children in the household, this can only be a temporary measure though. Perhan (Davor Dujmovic) teeters on the brink of maturity, old in body while innocent in spirit. Despite his unbecoming looks, he has already discovered a girlfriend in Azra (Sinolicka Trpkova). The problem is that Azra's mother worships her daughter, which means that she looks down on Perhan as a poor match for her princess. While this struggle for control drags on, Perhan cares for his sister Danira (Elvira Sali). Since she is mostly bed-ridden by a crippling leg injury, he serenades her with his accordion and shields her from the irrational mood-swings of Merdzan. They can't continue like this for much longer, yet where is change to spring from?

In tracing through Emir Kusturica's oeuvre, it seems that he has an affinity for stories that dive into the heart of complex, self-contained societies. Here he can weave his equality of fantasy and reality, a non-partisan approach essential to Time of the Gypsies. Because Perhan and, to a much greater extent, his grandmother have some control over the supernatural, they act in some sense as conduits. When Perhan dreams, Kusturica ushers us across the divide and enables us to share the experience. Subtle clues alert us to the fact that we have left the waking world, but Kusturica handles these with new-born care; the characters recognise no significant difference between the two states, we don't have to either. It's a slightly magical angle that leads the film to some outstanding moments, scenes both strange and familiar.

If, however, you peek below this turbulent surface it's clear that Time of the Gypsies rests on an age-old story. Perhan, naive and ill prepared in the early stages of the film, must confront and overcome certain dilemmas. Here these are drawn from his basic moral code, one at odds with many of Perhan's fellow gypsies (like Ahmed). To win the hand of Azra he must prove his financial nous, yet if he can't prosper honestly then he'd rather not do it at all. In playing this role, Dujmovic does a fine job of showing how those close to him modify Perhan's character, in direct proportion to his changing circumstances. As he unwittingly gets sucked into Ahmed's petty crime syndicate, formed to fleece Italians, Perhan must decide whom he trusts the most. Either he sticks to the ideals of his grandmother or (perhaps without realising) he allows himself to become like those (Ahmed, Merdzan) he formerly detested.

This inner conflict is given weight by the emotional performances of the women in Perhan's life: Adzovic, Sali and Trpkova. Each has a welcome hook in Perhan, pulling him in several directions at once. As the grandmother, Adzovic has cared for these children since their mother died giving birth to Danira; she brings an earthy, mystical and deeply wise quality to the film. Though both Adzovic and Sali place their trust in Perhan, the former is investing a hope for the future, that he'll do the right thing, while the latter demands unconditional love, the knowledge that he won't abandon her. In the scarce time that Time of the Gypsies allots Sali, she does a grand job. It is from these central three that the few very moving scenes are generated, all involving the choking emotions of separation and reunion. On paper Trpkova should share in this bounty; yet her presence is too flimsy to kick up more than sparks.

In bringing the Gypsy experience to the screen, Kusturica demonstrates a great eye for visual detail and an appreciation of their musical heritage. Time of the Gypsies features some unusually beautiful scenes, as deep and plush as a goose-feather bed. In the act of viewing you can almost feel yourself sinking into Vilko Filac's photography, seeing through touch. Complementing this sensation, the score of Goran Bregovic is entirely wonderful. Transplanting actual Romany folk songs, with their accordion and horn contrasts, Bregovic's score sets the tone of the characters' world. The problem is that as much as the characters draw you to them, the film loses cohesion when it fails to sort itself out. Kusturica initiates numerous threads, then lets them conclude in a jumble, getting all mixed-up and tangled. It's a disorganised end to an intriguing film.


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