Yugoslavia, Italy, United Kingdom, 1988
Directed by Emir Kusturica
With Davor Dujmovic (Perhan), Ljubica Adzovic (Khaditza), Husnija Hasimovic (Merdzan), Elvira Sali (Denira), Sinolicka Trpkova (Azra), Bora Todorovic (Ahmed), Branko Djuric (Sadam)
The young bride is incensed: the groom has let her down, just by getting so drunk that he cannot walk, and certainly not taking her in his arms for their first night. The camera pans and moves: the incident occurs in a wider gloomy and mucky world, a Gypsy settlement somewhere in Yugoslavia, the people going and coming minding their own lousy business, including trying hard to win a card game are the new focus. Among them stands out a disheveled young fellow, the head shaven, the mien sad, holding a battered, barely useful umbrella, who starts talking to the camera, telling that it is not his fault if he is Gypsy.
Off a raucous and stunning start, the film looks like a chronicle on the hardship of Yugoslav Gypsies, told with a lot of humor and featuring a lot of eccentricities. Indeed, as it focuses on one family, it introduces the audience to quite amazing and provocative characters that are definitely not the ordinary kind but have an extravagant and even magic edge, the pith of a delightfully oddball story, and sounding even queerer as the uttered are quite unusual, having never be used in fact in cinema up to this point: here is the first film ever shot in the Romany language.
The center of the chronicle turns out to be a lanky teenager wearing odd glasses, with a patch over the left glass – it turns out that he needs neither the whole spectacles nor the patch, but why he wants to wear them all the time would remain unexplained. Far more mysteriously, Perhan has a supernatural skill that is as impressive to watch as seemingly useless: he can move forks, tins, and other small stuff just by looking at them, that is, he has the gift of telekinesis. Also a matter for wonder, though in a quite different order of the things, he has elected a turkey as a pet, managing to get obeyed by the bird which does behave as a dog would, more or less. The turkey was a gift, handed over in the first minutes of the film, of his beloved grandmother, Khaditza, who has been taking care of him since the death of Perhan’s mother – a cherished daughter who had an affair with a stranger she never married, which means Perhan can be viewed, and treated, as a bastard, which is exactly what his uncle Merdzan does, if only because the bumbling and foolish young man, the only boy Khaditza had, who is perennially unlucky at games and always chasing any nice girl around, is quite jealous of the tenderness and support Khaditza gives to the teenager while he is always feel slammed and overlooked. To complete the family picture, there is a little, sick girl, the sister of Perhan, Denira, suffering from a leg too short and too weak.
Merdzan’s antics and the ardent love affair of Perhan for Azra provide the meat and bones of the events the chronicle is keen to relate, with a wonderful knack for nonsensical situations, colorful supporting characters, and moments of absolute fantasy, which are gateways to the joyous, ostentatious, and bewitching world of beliefs, traditions, and celebrations of the Gypsies. A darker side of the community is also presented, with the lavish and outrageous ways and dirty tricks of shadier characters, in particular gangster Ahmed.
It is with Ahmed’s own problems that the film changes course. His son falls badly ill and Khaditza is called to cure him – the granny is something of a medicine woman highly respected in the settlement. She succeeds and as a fee she beseeches Ahmed to take Denira away, in a big city where hospital doctors could restore her to health. Ahmed accepts, and also assents to take Perhan with them, as Denira cannot countenance to be separated from him. The travel brings them across Yugoslavia and then Italy, and changes Perhan’s life.
Italian streets may be far more cleaner and better, but they lead him to a gloomier, dirtier world: Ahmed runs from the outskirts of the big city, once again in squalid lodgings settled on a muddy terrain, a ring of kids compelled to beg the streets to bring him money. Child poverty is turned into a profitable racketeering while older sidekicks carry out petty thefts in every possible ways: this is criminal business and criminal folks and just what Perhan does not want to be part of. His narrative becomes his futile effort to refuse and to resist, but beaten up and humbled, he gives in, and quite remarkably put on a wily show of compliance and complicity leading to his ascent as the real boss of the gang after Ahmed falls out with his brother, and fellow gangster, Sadam and suffers from a stroke. So, the innocent boy grows up into a merciless gangster.
And the rest of his narrative gets bleaker, bitterer. Going back home on a double assignment (getting new children to exploit and a new wife for his disgruntled mentor) means finding out that Denira has never stayed in the hospital but secretly taken away and forced to be a beggar for Ahmed and then that Azra, who was supposed to wait for the return of her lover to marry him, is pregnant, perhaps the consequence of some carnal knowledge, or perhaps not – she claims the baby is Perhan’s but Perhan does not believe her. He accepts reluctantly to marry her, only to reckon to put the baby later on sale. To make an already fraught atmosphere even more toxic, he realizes that the house Ahmed promised to build him was a pipe dream. His anger would then get overwhelmed by grief as Azra delivers the baby but dies from the effort.
Fury drives him over four years and countless miles, Perhan seeking both to fetch his sister back and to take a revenge against Ahmed. He would succeed on both counts – but gets killed, ironically, by Ahmed’s bride, her outburst of rage echoing the film’s very first shots. Women’s anger with male recklessness bookends a bold, somber narrative arc, a coming-of-age tale that could have been a funny tale laced with magic but winds up being a gangster’s rise and fall, a loss of innocence begetting a relentless march to destruction. However tender and comic the portrait and the chronicle have been, the film has coped bluntly with the dishonesty and violence that helped part of the Gypsy community to survive; and both the cheerful and the obscure sides have been completed by a vivid illustration of the beliefs and traditions of the Gypsies; the film is thus a bewildering, hectic entertainment that throw open the gates to much-maligned but little understood group of people. The loony and unhappy story of Perhan is told with a ribald, robust sense of humor and a striking, seductive imagination, and shot in a very fluid, compelling style which owes a lot to clever shot compositions and riveting performances. The Roma come out of the film as wonderfully lively and emotional people, moody, going overboard easily, astonishingly ready to make anything and everything to pull through, but clinging to their own vision of the world and of destiny, with revenge a decent and fair pursuit. It is a boisterous and harsh life, but it is lived to the full, with an acute and constant sense of magic and celebration.