2000, NR, 90 min. Directed by Tony Gatlif. Starring Fernando Guerrereo Rebollo, Juan Luis Corrientes, Bobote, Antonio Perez Dechent, Orestes Villasan Rodriguez, Antonio Canales.
REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., Dec. 7, 2001
I saw some video footage once of a man playing flamenco guitar with such feverish intensity that by song's end the instrument's neck was awash in the red thrown off by his frantically strumming and injured digits. It was a hypnotic, arresting image, made all the more so by the maniacal pace of the tune, which fell somewhere between a dervish chant set to strings and the furious throb of a wounded heart. The director of Vengo, Tony Gatlif, sets his film amidst a similar tableau of fanaticism and injury, and while the film isn't perfect, it nonetheless captures the dangerously emotional world of both flamenco music and the Spanish Gypsies who use it to stave off the inevitable vagaries of Romany life. Gatlif is known foremost for his 1993 documentary Latcho Drom (which won awards at Cannes and from the National Society of Film Critics that year). Vengo, a fictionalized account of two warring Gypsy families in contemporary Spanish Andalusia, picks up where that peripatetic film left off. It's a fictional tale, but cinematographer Thierry Pouget's camera often homes in on the action hand-held, giving a documentary feel to much of the film. When they're not busy using tight shots to frame the now-bitter, now-ecstatic faces of the characters, the filmmakers rely on the setting's breathtaking panoramas. Shot in widescreen, Vengo has the look of a Sergio Leone Western minus the gunfights, with the Andalusian countryside, parched and spare, playing off the Gypsies' wild, spontaneous revels. As in Leone's films, most everybody here is clad in somber black-and-white outfits, even the wizened old women who daily scrub the streets after the previous evening's parties. Lead Antonio Canales, a professional flamenco dancer in real life, plays Caco, the leader of a Gypsy clan who, when not otherwise engaged in dancing or drinking or some combination of both, is fighting a generations-long war with the Caravacas, a rival family that recently lost a member to one of Caco's men. Unable to smooth things over, and concerned about retaliatory threats being made on the life of his handicapped nephew (Rodriguez), Caco moves between his town's bars, nightclubs, and open-air parties with the majestic grace of a panther, deep-set eyes alert in his aquiline profile, a nervous stiletto in his pocket. Considering the handsome good looks of its subjects, the non-stop ecstatic dancing that overshadows almost everything else (including the sometimes bewildering plot), and Pouget's keen eye for framing and composition, this is a film that is very easy on the eyes. There's a deep, bone-weary melancholy to the proceedings, offset by the mad parties and vicious displays of machismo. In Vengo it's a man's world, but the women get all the good songs, most if not all of which echo some variation on the “My heart is so sad, because I love too much” theme. It's nearly Shakespearean in its deeply held sense of romantic tragedy, and while the final outcome becomes apparent well before it arrives, it does nothing to deaden the searing shock of the final sequence, which is as raw and implacable as a broken heart.