Latcho Drom

(Safe Journey, Tony Gatlif, France, 1993)


Latcho Drom is a film that stealthily eludes any neat label or generic classification. It grips you in a gentle, compelling, seductive way from its first moments. You glide along, never quite knowing exactly what kind of movie it is.


At the simplest, most direct level, it’s tempting to call it a kind of musical, even a concert or performance film – or an elaborate, up-market music video. It is hard to think of a precedent; Carlos Saura’s Sevillanas (1992) comes to mind, as does Francesco Rosi’s earthy opera-film version of Carmen (1984).


But Latcho Drom is a unique, essentially unprecedented film. It is about the gypsies of the modern world. We see different groups of gypsies wandering, moving, travelling ceaselessly in many different countries – Romania, France, Egypt, Turkey, Spain. There are no explanatory inter-titles or voice-over narration: only these images, which leap around in time and space, and a string of extraordinary songs and dances. Each segment is defined by and built around the complete performance of a song. Part of the magic is that one cannot easily tell whether the performances are live or mimed, but one thing is certain: it is glorious, often deeply moving music.


Is Latcho Drom a documentary? There has been much earnest talk since the mid 1980s proposing that the best, most radical documentaries are those self-conscious works that are (as the saying goes) between documentary and fiction. They are the documentaries that openly introduce fictional or analytical approaches; that break the illusion of pure reportage, pure observational filming that characterised the breathless cinéma-vérité documentaries of the ‘60s. Sometimes called essay-films, these newer-than-new movies are often more like written essays that they are living, breathing works. Chris Marker is the benign god of the essay-film genre, and no one has ever done them better than him.


My admiration for Marker himself is profound; I have also seen several very fine examples of the essay film in his wake. But I am suspicious of the unvarying acclaim for this sophisticated style of documentary. Such hype has led to a sure-fire, audience-flattering formula for documentary, and the result is woeful, deeply suspect works like Dennis O’Rourke’s The Good Woman of Bangkok (1991). I often think there should be a warning printed on the relevant pages of Film Festival catalogues: Beware: Essay-Film.


So, is Latcho Drom an old-fashioned documentary, or a new-fangled essay-film? It certainly stands somewhere between documentary and fiction, but exactly where is very hard to say. It’s certainly not a collage of raw documentary, staged re-enactments, and appropriated clips from other movies – which is the structure of many essay-films. All the way through Latcho Drom, I wondered if it was a fiction that had decided to sweetly let go of its plot and just explore the textures, the details, the brute physical reality of these bodies, landscapes, songs and movements.


Perhaps it is really a documentary film forever on the verge of launching into fiction – full of marvellous glances, gifts, sudden visits from strangers or outsiders, people running to catch a performance, or driving to some strange rendezvous. But no single story is ever entirely knitted up: we are always moving past these little fragments of fiction, moving on whenever a song ends, picking up the wave of this gypsy song-line in some other time and place.


In one heartbreakingly beautiful scene – as close to a complete story as the film ever gets – a woman sits on a train platform with her small son; her face is wet, and her head is bowed by some unutterable sadness that we will never know. Her son tries to stir her, to console her somehow, but she is unreachable. On the other side of the empty train tracks, a band of gypsies is gathering. The boy scampers over, and offers a gypsy three coins for a song. It’s a pitiful offer, but does the trick: the gypsies sing, and the boy himself breaks into a zany two-step. He returns to his mother, dancing and jerking about as the gypsies play, over on their own side of this tableau. Finally, the mother smiles.


But there is no great coming together of worlds to conclude this exquisite scene: suddenly, the train that the gypsies have been waiting for arrives, blotting out the mother and son. Other gypsies disembark, leading to a warm reunion, and the film is off again, somewhere else.


Latcho Drom is not a narrative film by any means, but it is intensely structured and ordered, an extraordinary lyric poem – free but precisely formed. Gilles Deleuze speaks of a new form of cinematic narrative that arose after World War II: at once a journey and a ballad. Deleuze got that into a single, tricky, French word: bal(l)ade. He was describing a type of cinema that strolls about, surveys various times and places, associates and connects diverse experiences; in which the material, physical world is always more monumental and spectacular than the ephemeral human beings who pass through it, who perceive this world and make faint sense of it in precious little fragments of art, poetry, pain and love.


When Deleuze evokes this new narrative form, he’s thinking particularly of certain art cinema classics of the ‘60’s: Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’Avventura (1960), or Miklós Jancsó’s unusual political musicals. In today’s cinema, Latcho Drom, without ever straining to fit anybody’s agenda of what cinema should be, is the perfect expression of this trip-ballad form.


Latcho Drom resembles documentary because it has no plot, but it resembles fiction because it is all so clearly staged and choreographed. All the widescreen images in Latcho Drom are highly composed, and most of them are static, apart from a few very deliberate, long camera movements. The editing rhythm of this film is even, unforced and absolutely mesmerising. Within each performance, Gatlif calmly directs our gaze to an inventory of physical details: the way a singer’s hand moves, the way a listener’s head sways, the dance of a foot, the vibration of a skin stretched taut on a drum as it is vigorously played … the moon in the sky, or the animals in a street. These visual details, accumulated one atop the other, always form their own little ballad, their own independent line within the over-arching firmament of the song. The result is spellbindingly beautiful.


If you’ve never before experienced a film where the minute details of costumes, skin textures and landscapes form the chief spectacle and drive of what you’re seeing and hearing, Latcho Drom may strike you as a strange movie. It is indeed something of an experimental film, like a minimal, intensive landscape-study by Chantal Akerman, or a film of exotic, inscrutable, allegorical tableaux by Sergei Parajanov. The work of Amos Gitai is another nearby reference.


As a ballad, it’s a hearty, immediate musical; as a trip, it’s almost Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). This sci-fi connection particularly hit me in an amazing moment where Gatlif cuts from the long road ahead as seen and travelled by the gypsies in their caravans, to the plunging graphic of a road in the mock windscreen of a video game, which a gypsy kid is playing energetically in an arcade. In this sublime transition, Gatlif effortlessly segues from the immemorial past to the virtual present … and future.


In a similar fashion, Latcho Drom as a whole manages to be both small and intimate, spectacular and global, at the same time. It’s a rare, truly visionary movie that can comfortably bring such extremes together.


Here, form and texture speak; they affect the viewer in a material, experiential way. But what of the subject matter; what about these gypsies, their history and world? Like many, I am acquainted only with the fanciful media mythologies of gypsy life. I’ve seen Hot Blood (Nicholas Ray, 1956), Time of the Gypsies (Emir Kusturica, 1989), King of the Gypsies (Frank Pierson, 1978), I’ve Even Met Happy Gypsies (Aleksandar Petrovic, 1967), and I can recite the entire lyric of Cher’s old hit “Gypsies, Tramps and Thieves”. Closer to Latcho Drom, there’s Robert Duvall’s marvellous, almost forgotten portrait of modern gypsies, Angelo My Love (1983), done somewhat in the manner of John Cassavetes.


Movies and pop culture artefacts about gypsies tend to focus on certain recurring dramatic (or melodramatic) issues: family traumas, forbidden love, illicit encounters with outsiders, magic and mysticism and, above all, the eternal exclusion and victimisation of the gypsy people. Almost none of these themes appear in Latcho Drom. The songs do speak of love, pain and family, but none of that is shown or fictionalised beyond a few glints in the eyes of the performers. The film shows us hardly anything, really, of the details of gypsy life – the sleeping, eating, setting up camp, communal relations, and so on. All we get is the wandering, the moving. Not to forget the evident respect that the elderly receive in this community; these old folk are indelible presences.


The one classic theme on the agenda here is the victimisation of gypsies, their eternal outcast status. Gatlif leaks this motif out very slowly, in a carefully controlled, not at all maudlin way. The songs in the first half mention it, by and by. Eventually there are low-key dramatisations of how society at large treats gypsies: two men make them pack up and move on from a campsite. Later, in the stunning, penultimate scene, they are evicted from an empty building which is then methodically, insanely bricked up in all its doorways and windows.


This event leads to the final song, performed by a woman and a small boy on a hill: a song of intense, anguished, cosmic rage. Gatlif himself wrote the words, the only explicit authorial comment he allows himself. Even before we get to this ending, another kind of political theme has been building up. Latcho Drom is a journey through time and space; it’s also a journey through history and memory, a collective memory of historical atrocity which is kept alive by the gypsies in their songs, and their geographical trail. In a remarkable Auschwitz sequence, a song narrates how, under every oppressive political regime, gypsies have always been exterminated. “From the Catholic Queen Isabella to Hitler and Franco”, as the singer spits out in the final song on the hill, it’s always been the same.


The songs in Latcho Drom mark a history of traditions, borrowings and cross-mutations – cultural wanderings and transformations of all sorts. This music and dance form a living culture, one seemingly renews itself over and over in the face of death and extinction.


While watching, I took a look at myself and the rest of the audience sitting there, and wondered: are we all here for the worst reason, because of some superficial, trendy, market-driven attachment to so-called World Music, some vain and misguided celebration of ancient, exotic cultures which are not our own?


Maybe that horrible New Age mania was indeed part of what drove some of us into the cinema that day. But Latcho Drom is not some jazzy television commercial for wool blends, an unctuous yuppie lifestyle magazine, or some serene, mocked-up, digitised CD of sampled tribal warblings over an Los Angeles studio drum machine beat. It is an authentic vision of a real people, and a magnificent work of art.

MORE Gatlif: Children of the Stork, Exiles, Swing, Vengo

© Adrian Martin September 1995

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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