Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Gatlif’s Korkoro

They have been romanticized by some and vilified by far more. Once an enslaved people, their traditional lifestyle and culture reflects a unique commitment to freedom. They are the Romani people, or so-called “Gypsies,” the forgotten victims of the Holocaust. Tony Gatlif, perhaps the most celebrated Romani filmmaker, dramatizes a chapter of his people’s tragic history in the historically-inspired Korkoro (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

In 1943, French authorities were only too willing to pass restrictive laws targeting the Romani. Duly reporting to a provincial city hall with passbooks in hand, one Romani family finds the rules have been changed on them once again. According to the sympathetic Mayor Rosier, new laws have been established outlawing their nomadic ways. At first, they try their best to ignore his warnings, but it soon becomes clear their legal position is even more precarious than usual.

Using his position with the fascist militia, a former business associate confiscates their best horses. With their mobility impaired, the Romani family is eventually interned in a deportation camp. By signing over the deed to his family cottage, the good mayor is able to save them, at least temporarily. However, tragedy is clearly inevitable, for all parties of good conscience.

Indeed, Korkoro is as much a tribute to the “Justes,” the non-Roma gadjo who saved Romani during the Holocaust, as it is a portrayal of Romani suffering. In fact, Gatlif shrewdly avoids a reductive depiction of victimization through his central Romani protagonist, Félix Taloche, a decidedly unsentimental figure. Wild almost to the point of being feral, Taloche has a pure recklessness that might be self-defeating, but personifies the film’s title: “Korkoro,” the Romani word for freedom.

Played by James Thierrée, the grandson of Charlie Chaplin, Taloche is a force of nature with innate musical talent. The sight of him tearing through the French countryside will rightly become the enduring image of the film. Yet, Thierrée expresses something hauntingly human in Taloche.

Effectively counterbalancing Thierrée are the primary Justes, Mayor Rosier and his halting romantic interest, Mademoiselle Lundi, the town’s school teacher and resistance volunteer. As Rosier, Marc Lavoine looks the personification of integrity, while Marie-Josée projects genuine strength and vulnerability beneath Lundi’s icy schoolmarm veneer.

Perhaps what is most striking about Korkoro is the sense of musicality Gatlif brings to the story, separate and apart from the scenes of the Romani family in performance. He captures the rhythms of wagon wheels and horses’ hoofs in a way that powerfully evokes the Romani family’s way of life. Despite the ugliness of the period, cinematographer Julien Hirsch gives it a beautifully wind-swept look. Indeed, this is bravura filmmaking, boasting a truly bold lead performance from Thierrée. Highly recommended, Korkoro opens this Friday (3/25) in New York at the Cinema Village.