A fearful bride runs madly from right to left; a breathless young man runs madly from left to right. They converge, entwined with desire, and ride off on a motorbike accompanied by blaring rock music. Whew — at least nobody expects demure from Tony Gatlif, whose latest feature, “Geronimo,” is a “West Side Story” update about a social educator trying to prevent all-out war between the families of an illicit couple. Driven as always by spirited music, the helmer remains unsurprisingly true to himself, meaning French play could be strong, but few Stateside arthouses will be crying, “Geronimo!”
Gatlif claims he’s never felt freer than during the making of this film, largely shot outdoors or in a vast abandoned factory that allowed him to think about the action in full 360-degree terms. Not that there’s much circling of the camera (thankfully), though there is a vigorous sense of space. Nil Terzi (Nailia Harzoune) is the bride, 16, just forcibly married off to older Tarik (Tim Seyfi). Her lover is Lucky Molina (David Murgia), and once they run away together, Nil’s family is out for blood, literally — no one more so than her brother Fazil (Rachid Yous), a striking young man who smolders and seethes and smolders again.
The two families, one of Turkish origin and the other Spanish, live in the south of France — not the posh part, of course. Geronimo (Celine Sallette, “Rust and Bone”) is the community “social educator,” a sort of social worker-cum-life coach dedicated to keeping local youth out of too much trouble. A reform school graduate herself, Geronimo doles out tough love and expects the ‘hood to show her the same respect she shows them. Yet staving off bloodshed will be a problem, since Fazil and Co. are convinced the only way to save face is by killing his sister.
Gatlif certainly knows how to build tension, and the air practically quivers with imminent violence, though up until the finale, he substitutes music and dance numbers in lieu of actual gunplay. In one scene a flamenco dancer (Prado Jimenez) does a number on an overturned coffin; in another, rhythms are underscored by weapons like truncheons, knives and chains, used to pound the beat. It’s all very Jets vs. Sharks, minus Jerome Robbins, but the music is still captivating and the sequences pulse with energy. Less successful are overbaked, plot-driven sections pitched at a level of near-hysteria.
The Shakespeare parallels are understandably omnipresent, and not just to “Romeo & Juliet”; There’s also a classic fool-clairvoyant, Alex (Arthur Vandepoel), predicting disaster. Geronimo herself is an updated version of the archetypal go-between, trying hard to whisk the lovers away from harm while appealing for calm. She’s a strong character, largely thanks to Sallette’s modulated intensity; others in the cast don’t have her thesping chops, and Gatlif seems to encourage a tendency toward glowering in scenes that keep threatening to boil over. Despite the hothouse nature of their story, at least Harzoune and Murgia manage to feel theatrically real in their youthful passion.
Lensing by Patrick Ghiringhelli has a sense of urgency, relatively loose-limbed and unafraid to stick close to the characters except during dance numbers, when auds can appreciate the full performances. Gatlif’s fruitful 10-year collaboration with composers Delphine Mantoulet and Valentin Dahmani continues to attest to their mutual sympathies, and the enjoyable blend of Turkish and Spanish rhythms tied to a contempo beat are the strongest elements of the film. Two moments, however, yield false notes: a hip-hop showdown that feels very 1980s, and the use of Verdi’s “Va, pensiero” chorus incongruously grafted over a street rumble. Geronimo’s name is never explained in the pic, though Gatlif chose the famed Apache warrior’s name as a way of signaling the character’s rebellious nature.