New Yorker Films // 1997 // 102 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Russell Engebretson (Retired) // November 17th, 2005
In every soul there is a Gypsy.
The Crazy Stranger employs the simple story framework of a coming-of-age road journey rounded out with a romantic entanglement. It delivers an unusual cinematic look into the lives of Eastern European Gypsies -- a subject and geographical location rarely captured on film.
Stéphane (Romain Duris), a young Frenchman, is journeying on foot across Eastern Europe to find an obscure Gypsy singer, Nora Luca, whose music he knows only from a single cassette tape that was cherished by his deceased father. On a snowy winter night, he finds his way to a small Romanian village and encounters Isidor (Izidor Surban), a drunken old Gypsy who sits outside of an inn and curses the Romanians who were responsible for his son's arrest. Isidor befriends Stéphane (calling him his "lucky Frenchman"), plies him with vodka, and persuades Stéphane to come with him back to his Gypsy encampment.
Stéphane is grudgingly accepted by the Gypsy community (after being roundly cussed out and accused of chicken thievery) and in short order smitten with the lusty, sharp-tongued Sabina (Rona Hartner). She wants nothing to do with him; her former husband was a Belgian who abandoned her and returned to his native country, so now Sabina is considered something of an outcast -- accused of whorish behavior by her fellow Gypsies. Isidor, who is a fiddle player and local band member, offers to help the Frenchman find Nora Luca. The remainder of The Crazy Stranger lopes along from one episode to another with sketches of Gypsy life, several delightful scenes of Gypsy music and dance, and a final violent confrontation between the Gypsies and Romanians.
The Crazy Stranger is the third film in a loose-knit trilogy by director Tony Gatlif that also includes Latcho Drom (1993) and Mondo (1996), neither of which is available on DVD in the US. The main ingredient that unites the movies is an exploration and celebration of the Gypsy life. The plot device of this movie -- Stéphane's search for a Gypsy singer -- is as threadbare as Isidor's overcoat. If the viewer is looking for a tightly plotted movie with surprising twists and turns, he should skip this one. This is a character movie that explores Gypsy mores and culture with a series of entertaining, but loosely strung together, vignettes.
The acting in this film is fine across the board, from lead actors to bit players. I couldn't tell from her acting and appearance, but Rona Hartner (who strongly resembles Kate Winslet) is not a Gypsy. She is quite convincing in her role as a fire-breathing, headstrong young Gypsy woman, but she is in fact Jewish. The actor who plays Isidor, on the other hand, is a real Gypsy and not a professional actor. That may be why he is so convincing: He is playing himself, and doing it quite well. The other major actor, Romain Duris, in spite of his striking movie-star good looks, manages to play the young everyman with just the proper amount of naïveté, youthful lustiness, and simple decency. Most of the minor players, Gypsy and Romanian, are European non-actors who were recruited on site. They are uniformly excellent.
The movie was shot in real Eastern European locations in genuine Gypsy and Romanian villages, so one can't fault the sets for an artificial appearance. The real location shooting goes a long way toward making this film seem almost like a documentary, rather than a light romantic comedy-drama. The depiction of the Romanians' bigotry and fear of Gypsies was also quite realistic, and added to the documentary flavor.
I should mention that this movie is very earthy. The language is often sexually frank and crude; there is also one scene with male and female frontal nudity, and a short but graphic sex scene. The rough language is not there just to shock the audience, but to help impart a de-romanticized view of Gypsies. For some odd reason, seeing all those naughty words in the subtitles is more discomfiting than hearing them spoken in English, but mature grownups should be able to handle the salty lingo.
The DVD transfer is rather soft, though not to the point of distraction. The color palette is quite good; colors are solid and appear natural. Shadow detail is passable, but sometimes murky, maybe partly due to the film's softness. So the picture is far from spectacular, but looks good on a medium-sized monitor. Likewise, the Dolby 2.0 soundtrack isn't going to win any prizes, but dialogue was clear and the music presented pleasingly across the stereo soundstage, with good dynamic range. That's important, because there is a great deal of fine Gypsy music throughout the film.
The only extra content is five trailers, one of The Crazy Stranger and four of other New Yorker Video DVD releases. Too bad there is no director's audio commentary, as it probably would have been fascinating given the subject matter and the director's obvious passion for Gypsy culture.
Gypsies have been both romanticized and vilified by popular journalism and Hollywood movies; their way of life has been fashioned into a media fantasy of tinkers, thieves, carefree fiddlers, and sexual temptresses in colorful skirts. Some of that ambience has crept into director Gatlif's movie, but more often there is a sense of authenticity in the settings and characters. It's clear that Gatlif's intentions are sincere. He has tried to capture some aspects of real Gypsy culture and dispel some of the absurd and malicious stereotypes propagated by both romantics and bigots. Does his movie accurately portray the genuine Gypsy lifestyle? I don't know; I'm as far removed as can be imagined from the milieu of the Eastern European Gypsy; but it appears authentic. For an hour and a half, I was immersed in a cinematically believable alien culture and entertained by the music, dances, and acting. It's a likeable, sometimes illuminating film done in an almost faux cinema vérité style. I can't ask a great deal more from this sort of movie. If you have read this far and still think this movie might be your cup of tea, you probably will enjoy it too.
This film committed a misdemeanor here and there, but no felonies. Not guilty.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: New Yorker Films
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
Running Time: 102 Minutes
Release Year: 1997
MPAA Rating: Not Rated