|A FilmExposed Film Review
Dir: Tony Gatlif, 2007, France, 105mins, French/English/Romany with subtitles
Cast: Asia Argento, Birol Ünel, Amira Casar
Its title, together with the presence of horror royalty, Argento, might conjure images of caped bloodsuckers, but Gatlif’s latest isn’t about the myth, but the equally engrossing reality of the Transylvanian landscape. It begins with one woman’s obsessive search for the lover who left her in France. Beautiful, haunted, pregnant Zingarina (Argento) finally locates the temperamental, Romanian musician in a Transylvanian bar, only for him to inexplicably reject her. Thereafter, Zingarina casts aside her protective friend, Marie (Casar), and embraces a rootless, unencumbered, gypsy existence. After her initial companion, a street child, abandons her, she hooks up with Tchango (Ünel), a wheeler-dealing drifter proficient in several languages. Together they journey, through strange incidents and colourful characters, sharing the joyful and melancholic notes in the music of life.
Story-wise, Transylvania is hard to classify. Wayward, boisterous, evocative, sometimes meandering, occasionally fascinating, it is less a straightforward narrative than an attempt to translate gypsy spirit and culture into pure cinema. Many scenes celebrate music, dance, and the expression of raw emotion that seems central to gypsy culture. Fiery performances from Argento and Ünel occasionally pitch into hysteria, but honestly represent characters driven by passion. Their scenes together have a welcome spontaneity. Such capricious protagonists melded to a defiantly picaresque narrative will test some viewers’ patience. Characters come and go, their motivations often frustratingly vague. Yet, Transylvania isn’t as ramshackle as it appears. It is structured, however loosely, around a cycle of abandonment: Zingarina is abandoned by her lover; she in turn abandons Marie; is abandoned again by the little girl; then runs out on Tchango, who faces a choice of either going after her or continuing alone. Gatlif captures the strange, unsettling nature of the landscape, but also the vibrant, humanity of its people. A filmmaker with a strong affinity for outsiders (several of his past works feature gypsy protagonists), he includes the highs and lows, the prejudice they encounter as well as the camaraderie. He includes welcome moments of off-kilter humour: Tchango and Zingarina’s coitus interruptus thanks to a hungry bear; the baby’s delivery where Zingarina mistakes three, helpful midwives for witches; and her spontaneous, sparring match with Tchango (a chance for Asia to show off her kickboxing moves from XXX (2001)).
No stranger to portraying passionate, headstrong women Argento was a good choice for Gatlif’s first female protagonist. The script has Zingarina prone to outbursts of pointless screaming, but Argento overcomes such lapses and commands the screen. Her wordless, improvised reactions during a mesmerizing exorcism scene – where Zingarina is bathed in milk while the congregation drives out the devil in her – is a career-best performance. One wonders though, what will Zingarina’s ceaseless consumption of booze and cigarettes do to her baby?