"Long live Moors! And pretty women!"—Singer at party
Even from the opening moments, as the band tunes up its instruments, we know this movie is going to be about the music. There is a plot here somewhere, a little something about a gypsy leader (Antonio Canales as Caco) caring for his mentally-handicapped nephew (Orestes Villasan Rodriguez as Diego). Caco parties fiercely, and protects Diego just as fiercely, as he mourns the death of his daughter in a blood feud. But Tony Gatlif's ode to Andalusia, Vengo is about music.
More precisely, it is about how the Roma find music in everything from trees to water—and how they turn every opportunity into a festival to counter their almost ubiquitous sorrow. Everyone in Vengo has music in his or her soul. Macho men burst into song along the road. Women dance flamenco and tango and belly dancing. Caco and Diego go clubbing and see some striptease. Even the rival gypsy clan's thugs have their own music CD.
I read an article recently in which a director of classical concert videos commented on the difficulty of making filmed musical performances interesting, especially when band members tend to sit in one place. I suspect Tony Gatlif has considered the same problem. He tries spicing up the performances with visual devices—a Moorish singer tapping on a wine glass, lots of dancing—but the musical numbers in Vengo still seem very long. Gatlif makes his point about gypsy culture in the first act, and the film tends to meander from there. Eventually, a slight revenge plot makes its way into our field of vision, but Vengo is really more of an ethnographic portrait of the music of Andalusia. If you go in prepared for that, Vengo offers some exciting musical performances. The dancing is lively, and the landscape is as romantic as any movie about gypsies ought to be. And this is certainly a more authentic portrait of Romani life than anything Hollywood is likely to give.
To fill in our impression of Romani culture, Home Vision packages Vengo with a short film by Alvaro Alonso Gomez about urban gypsy life told from the perspective of a bus driver who learns to bond with these resilient people. "Los Almendros—Plaza Nueva" was shown in theaters with Vengo, and although it only runs 25 minutes and is a little grainy and scratchy (obviously made on a lower budget than Gatlif's feature), it does feature several musical numbers, although the dancing is pretty much confined to the aisles of the bus. Interviews with Antonio Canales and Antonio Dechent (who plays Alejandro) point out how Vengo is, in Canales' words, "the purest of flamenco movies." Certainly, the film seems to have energy and heart, and the performances (many by gypsy non-professionals) ring true, even if the plot is tacked on to hold the film together. For those interested in checking out a much misunderstood culture and its lyrical approach to life, Vengo is a nice change of pace.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Home Vision Entertainment
• "Los Almendros -- Plaza Nueva" Short Film
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