26 July 2008

Vengo
a thoughtful, masterful meld of music and drama
Vengo DVD cover
2000
90 minutes / Spanish with English subtitles
written and directed by Tony Gatlif


The insert accompanying the DVD release of Tony Gatlif’s amazing film Vengo gives a succinct but very informative background on the forces that combined to create the musical form called flamenco – a ‘perfect storm’ of Christian, Hebrew, Muslim and, later, Gitano cultures came together and something completely new and wonderful was born. It’s a process that continues to this day, blending musical flavorings from Europe, Africa, the Middle East and as far away as India into a tasty stew that is unequaled in its ability to express the joys, pain, passion, sorrow and loss that boil within everyone, yearning to freely express themselves, to share with others the emotions that live within the human heart and soul. Director Tony Gatlif has Gitano blood flowing in his veins – his love of his heritage, his respect for Roma history and culture, and his knowledge of the elements that have formed it (and continue to form it, for it is like an extensive living organism) have manifested in his art, resulting in some incredible filmmaking, his first work appearing as early as 1975. Especially notable among his other films are Latcho drom (1993), Gadjo dilo (1998), Swing (2002), Exils (2004) and Transylvania (2006) – Roma culture and music play huge roles in all of them.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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Sheltering and nourishing his nephew Diego and dealing with his own massive grief over the death of his daughter Pepa are the controlling forces in Caco’s life – even as he works to keep the reins of their businesses tightly in hand. He takes Diego to Seville – a trip involving both business and pleasure – and introduces him to an apparent prostitute, a young woman he knows called La Catalana, with whom he has prearranged a liaison with the young man. Making an excuse of having to run an errand, he leaves the two of them alone together in an empty bar – later, after his return, as he and Diego walk down the darkened street together, he attempts to pry information from the boy about what happened between him and the woman. Diego is touchingly, shyly reticent, finally expressing, in response to Caco’s macho ‘So how was it…?’ with a comment that illustrates the depth of his own thought, understanding and wisdom concerning such matters, ‘It was good – but it wasn’t love’ – it’s inspiring to see that he knows and recognizes the difference at his young age.

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.
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Caco is seen talking with a couple of members of the Caravacas family, revealing the source of the bad blood between the two clans – Caco’s brother Mario killed a member of their family, and they are grimly determined that ‘someone has to pay’ for the death. The celebration around the christening of their dead brother’s daughter, is seen by Caco as a chance for rapprochement – in the company of his bodyguards and family, he brings Diego to the gathering as a sign of good will, insisting that they have not come to insult the family of the dead man, but that he wants to talk, in order to heal the rift between them. Music again plays an important role in this scene, in the form of a performance by an absolute legend of cante flamenco, Paquera de Jerez. Caco and the brother of the slain Caravacas man separate themselves from the opposing entourages (who continue to exchange insults), but little is resolved. The tensions that have slowly and inexorably mounted throughout the film continue to do so, ultimately leading to the climax.
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Vengo is remarkable for a number of reasons. It’s well-written, creatively and sensitively directed, acted with a great mixture of believability and feeling, with impressive and moving cinematography – add to this the seamlessness with which Gatlif has combined the elements of drama and music, and you have something of very rare quality indeed. I’ve viewed it a number of times now, and I always come away more impressed with it than before. The storyline is intelligent and well-developed, its portrayal of Gitano culture is never patronizing or simplistic, and the musical element is woven so naturally and tightly into the film that the viewer is never left with the feeling of watching a music video (a trap into which far too many films that attempt such a combination find themselves stumbling, despite their best intentions). The DVD release, through Home Vision Entertainment, features a sharp image that doesn’t appear to suffer at all from over-zealous tweaking or image-boosting – and the sound is crystalline, allowing the dialogue, environmental sounds, and the stunning music to be heard unencumbered by any unnatural-sounding effects. There are a couple of nice bonus features as well – interviews with Antonio Canales and Antonio Dechent, and a short film entitled Los Almendros – Plaza Nueva, about contemporary Gitano life, that was shown at European film festivals in conjunction with Vengo.

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.

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