a thoughtful, masterful meld of music and drama
90 minutes / Spanish with English subtitles
written and directed by Tony Gatlif
Vengo opens, appropriately enough, with a scene in which the viewer sees both musicians and listeners arriving by boat at a palatial residence perched high on a rock above the water. A guitarist (the great Tomatito, one of Spain’s finest) and violinist begin to play with amazing virtuosity, feeding off each other as if they were of one mind – after a few minutes, as if in response, a group of Arabo-Andalusian players take up their instruments. To the accompaniment of an oud, a violin, a flute, percussion and a chorus of responsive vocals, Sheikh Ahmad Al Tuni begins to sing, clinking on a glass for additional percussion, an ecstatic expression on his face. Soon the Gitano players come back in, with the whole picture underscoring the deep relationships between the cultures and musical forms that gave birth to flamenco.
Gatlif’s camera cuts from the concert to a shot of the whitewashed walls of a church and its attached gallery of crypts, stark against a blue sky filled with rolling grey clouds – the dramatic element of the film comes into play. Caco (pictures above, wonderfully played by Antonio Canales, known in Spain as a fine dancer), the head of a Gitano clan, stands before the tomb of a young woman who is revealed to be his daughter Pepa – his grief is deep and clear, and its effects on him and those around him will become even clearer as the film progresses. Leaving the churchyard, Caco and his entourage – family members and bodyguards – arrive at their village to find graffiti scrawled across the wall : ‘Sandro – you will be avenged’, the first allusion to the bad blood that exists between Caco’s family and a rival clan. He immediately fears for the safety of his nephew, Diego (Orestes Villasan Rodriguez, in an absolutely stunning performance), racing up a hill to assure himself that the young man is safe.
The ‘business’ of Caco’s family – beyond his part-ownership of a Seville bar – is never detailed, but large bundles of cash are handled, instructions (both verbal and written, at times cryptic) are given and carried out at his bidding – there’s never any implication that anything illegal or illicit is going on, but its possibility is there. An associate talks with Caco, communicating to him that he has a potential buyer for Caco’s share of the bar – when asked the identity of the potential purchaser, he’s told that the man wants to remain anonymous. This brings a comment from Caco referring to the Caravacas family – ‘that scumbag family’, he spits – further identifying his family’s adversary, and the probably source of the threatening graffiti.
Later, the two of them meet up with other family members, friends and associates for a performance arranged and financed by Caco featuring one of Diego’s favorite singers, La Caita, at a restaurant. This amazing singer was also featured in Gatlif’s film Latcho drom (click here for a clip from that film featuring her) – the sheer power and passion with which she throws herself into her cante is breathtaking. She sings, ‘In the street of winds, your body and mine came together’ – this is the flame of the unfettered and untamed voice of pure emotion. Accompanied only by a guitar or two, some improvised percussion and palmas from around the table, she very nearly sets the screen on fire. Across the restaurant, a table filled with a couple of dozen soldiers listens – one of them strolls over to be closer to the music, with Alejandro (Caco’s cousin, one of his bodyguards and his closest confidant, played with fine subtlety by Antonio Perez Dechent) showing concern that trouble might develop. More of the soldiers make their way over as the music comes to its incredible climax – at the end of La Caita’s song, one of them calls out, ‘¡Viva arte!’, to which Alejandro replies, forcefully and with due pride, ‘¡Viva flamenco…flamenco puro!’ This performance by La Caita is a moving, graphic example of ‘flamenco puro’ – the music that the Gitanos create for themselves, to give expression to their souls, as opposed to the flamenco that is performed for tourists, or the watered-down version propagated by so many elements of popular culture media.
Once again the scene shifts, depicting Caco at Pepa’s tomb. The pain in his heart is inexpressible – but conveyed beautifully, and deeply felt. He lights a candle for her and murmurs, ‘Your death burns me…’ as he taps gently on the glass that covers her picture and the marker sealing her crypt. As Alejandro waits with the others outside the churchyard, the wind begins to blow – softly at first, almost unnoticeable – through the leaves and branches of a tree. As it catches his attention, Alejandro walks over to it, then under it, allowing the branches and leaves to surround him. ‘Listen…’, he says to his companions, who join him. Antonio (Bobote, a musician himself) closes his eyes and immerses himself in the sound – he says, ‘This tree’s got duende – sounds like a lament’, and begins to sing softly. Is it an echo or a foreshadowing of loss?
Diego loves flamenco, and he loves to party – he mentions another group to Caco, Las Cigalas de Jerez, and his uncle promises to get them for their next party. It begins in the afternoon, eats up the night as if with a fork and knife, and continues on into the next morning. Caco’s sorrow cannot be subdued by the music and revelry – it’s as visible in his eyes and on his face as an old scar. He consumes glass after glass of wine, finally passing out, helped by a couple of his aged aunts to a place where he can give in to his alcohol- and grief-induced slumber. As he slips into unconsciousness, he mutters his lost daughter’s name, ‘Pepa…’ and fades into the oblivion of sleep. At one point, in the light of morning, Diego looks in on him, showing that the love of family is more than a one-way street.
The DVD is readily available through domestic US sources, for either rental or purchase. I can’t recommend this one highly enough – and I can’t see myself ever tiring of returning to it. The wonderful soundtrack CD is available as well, and is a great introduction to this moving music.