The bruising life of a Roma teen takes on shades of “Hamlet” in Slovak helmer Martin Sulik’s poignant and beautifully rendered humanist drama “Gypsy.” Already slated for an extensive fest run (including Toronto and Warsaw) following its bow in competition at Karlovy Vary, the pic could ride critical support to niche arthouse bookings. It nabbed three prizes in Karlovy Vary, including the Europa Cinema Labels award, which supports distribution in Europe.
Sensitive 14-year-old Adam (Jan Mizigar) tries to be the man of the house after his father (Ivan Mirga) is found dead by the side of the road. But his road to maturity becomes increasingly complicated when his beautiful mother (Miroslava Jarabekova) marries his shady uncle Zigo (Miroslav Gulyas), and his father (Ivan Mirga) starts to pay him ghostly visits, providing surprising scraps of information.
Zigo’s “stick it to whitey” attitude, derived from extensive experience with prejudice, spells trouble for Adam and his glue-sniffing brother Marian (Martin Hangurbadzo) when Zigo involves them in his illegal schemes. Moreover, it puts them at odds with another father figure, the parish priest (Attila Mokos), who spends long hours providing alternatives for the youth of the community.
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When he isn’t practicing boxing at the parish center or doing chores around the church, Adam hankers after Jolana (Martina Kotlarova), a lively teen who returns his feelings. Unfortunately, her family’s difficult circumstances dictate other plans for her.
Marking an important subject for Central Europe, where the Roma are maligned and marginalized, the script illustrates their outsider status without being didactic or naive. Director Sulik and scribe Marek Lescak spent months earning the trust of families in various settlements, and repaid them by eschewing stereotypes and creating well-rounded characters.
In contrast with films shot by other non-Roma directors, which too frequently stress the antic or criminal side of gypsy life, the tone here is naturalistic, leavened by brief and touching moments of magical realism. Despite the impoverished surroundings, welcome moments of humor arise from the landscape (such as the place on the hillside with the best cell phone reception) and daily life. One youth makes the offhand remark that he wants to live in England because people will assume he is Pakistani rather than Roma.
All non-pros with the exception of Mokos, the excellent cast, drawn from throughout Slovakia, exudes natural talent, with the nuanced Gulyas especially strong.
Although less lyrical than in Sulik’s previous films such as “Orbus pictus” and “The Garden,” the emotive lensing (pic was shot on location in a hillside village near Richnava) contains repeated stylized moments that seem to mark chapters. Another standout in the fine tech package is the melancholy score by Sulik’s regular composer Vladimir Godar.