French cinema’s cheerleader-in-chief for gypsy culture, Tony Gatlif, returns to Romania with “Transylvania,” exploring once more the land where he shot his most commercially successful pic so far, “Gadjo Dilo.” Although new tale is Gatlif’s first to center around a femme character, played by Asia Argento, it still reps yet another road movie with hot-blooded lovers, Romany supporting thesps, and musical rest stops much like his last, “Exiles,” and many another Gatlif movie. Given Argento’s presence, and what looks like a slightly plusher than usual budget, reasonably diverting “Transylvania” may have a marginally improved chance of offshore encampments.
Typecast thesps and helmer are certainly in their comfort zones here, with script that plays to their respective strengths. Argento channels a lot of her own vibrant, histrionic personality into character of Zingarina, an Italian woman who’s come to Transylvania via France to look for her Romany musician lover Milan (Italian rock star Marco Castoldi, father in real life of Argento’s child). Zingarina believes Milan was deported by the French authorities, and given she’s besotted with him and two-months pregnant with his kid, she’s keen to track him down.
Her motherly friend Marie (Amira Casar, “Anatomy of Hell”) has come along for moral support, but there’s not much even Marie can do when Zingarina goes into emotional meltdown after Milan, discovered during a village festival, rejects her. On their way back to France, Zingarina gives Marie the slip, disguises herself as a gypsy, and wanders about the countryside. Eventually, she meets itinerant trader Tchangalo (Birol Unel, playing a gruff, sensual man much like the one he incarnated in Fatih Akin’s “Head On,”) and hooks up with him.
Rest of pic unfolds a typically Gatlifian picaresque adventure, as the two bicker and abrade against each other, and then, naturally, become lovers as they roam the Transylvanian countryside. Tune-laden setpieces, inserted in regular intervals in manner reminiscent of old-fashioned musicals, include an exorcism scene in a church during which Zingarina gets purifying milk poured over her while the locals chant Gregorian-style, and a scene where Tchangalo hires some Romany musicians to serenade him while bashes himself over the head with beer bottles in a sequence that further recalls his self-harming antics in “Head On.”
Seemingly semi-improvised dialogue is kept mostly to a minimum, which is just as well because some of it’s awful. For example, when Tchangalo tells Zingarina he can’t imagine where she’s come from, she replies, with worldly hauteur, “Imagine anything you like, I’ve done it.” Given fact character was majorly suckered by her previous b.f., she’s clearly not learned much from all that experience.
However, no one goes to see a Gatlif movie for its sparkling wit or polished script, but those who like his life-on-the-edge romanticism will get more than their money’s worth from this. Helmer’s technique is smooth and fluent here, displaying a vague urge to push the repertoire of themes on somewhat with a family-values ending. There’s even an attempt to inject some structural symmetry into the narrative, with two contrasting fantasy sequences for both Zingarina (imagining a best-case scenario that doesn’t happen) and Tchangalo (imaging the opposite) that bookend the film.
Pic’s musical soundscape, credited to helmer himself and collaborator Delphine Mantoulet, is catchy if more traditional than their work on “Exiles.” Scope, magic-hour-shot lensing by Celine Bozon looks the biz.