When future historians look back upon this era, they will say without hesitation that Europe mistreated the Romani people.
When future historians look back upon this era, they will say without
hesitation that Europe mistreated the Romani people. Even today, the Romani
are either seen through the lens of crude ethnic stereotypes or they are not
seen at all. One of the few Ethnic Romanis to break through this culture of
marginalisation is the French Algerian director Tony Gatlif who, in a career spanning four decades, has attempted
to communicate what it means to be Romani. Now re-released on DVD, TranSylvania is Gatlif’s attempt to
turn the tables on the European oppressor and show what it might take for a Gadjo
to become a Romani.
Zingarina (Asia Argento) is a rebellious Italian woman who has travelled to
Transylvania in search of her lost Romani lover. Decked out in black clothes
and adorned with silver rings and mystical symbols, Zingarina is a picture of
affected European alienation. After visiting a series of picturesque villages
and parties, Zingarina finally finds her love only to be told that it is over.
Shocked and hurt, Zingarina falls into a dark depression that leaves her
wandering the streets in the company of a Romani orphan until a Turkish peddler
named Tchangalo (Birol Unel) steps
in and attempts to look after her.
While the film’s narrative may rest
upon the growing friendship between Zingarina and Tchangalo, the film itself
has little interest in the exact nature of their relationship. Instead, Gatlif focuses
his attention on the extraordinary beauty of Transylvania and the evocative
sense that while Zingarina and Tchangalo may have nations and cultures of their
own, their true nationality is a restless freedom born of alienation and
suspicion. In fact, many of the locals take to referring to Zingarina as a
‘gypsy’ while Tchangalo’s battered Mercedes station wagon and itinerant
lifestyle alludes to the Travellers that can be seen all over Europe.
As with his earlier films Mondo and Gadjo Dilo, Gatlif presents us with a vision of Romani culture that
is as sympathetic and compelling as it is problematic. For Gatlif, the Romani
are free-spirited anarchists whose values and identities reflect the fact that
their culture has long struggled to survive in the cracks between European
civilisations. By emphasising the psychological aspects of the Romani
experience, Gatlif suggests that non-Romani people (such as Zingarina and
Tchangalo) can effectively ‘become’ Romani through a sort of spiritual
transcendence born of severe existential and cultural alienation.
What makes this vision so problematic
is the fact that it reflects not so much how the Romani people see themselves
as how leftist intellectuals and Victorian novelists have chosen to romanticise
them. The suggestion that Gatlif’s vision might be one of a cultural outsider
is brought home in a wonderful sequence in which Asia Argento rides a bicycle
whilst singing an Italian revolutionary song. Most Romani spokespeople and
activists stress the role of ancestry, social ties and shared values in
determining what it means to be Romani and this vision of a proud and
much-mistreated culture has little to do with the values of freedom and
revolution championed in Zingarina’s song. Given that Gatlif is ethnically
Romani but culturally French Algerian (a background he explores in the film Exiles), it is hard not to look upon
films like TranSylvania as a sort of aspirational document… a roadmap home for
someone who can never return.
Despite some mildly uncomfortable cultural
politics, TranSylvania remains a beautiful and evocative piece of filmmaking. Gatlif
combines Celine Bozon’s ice-cold
cinematography with some striking locations and a hauntingly effective score to
convey a Transylvania where human warmth serves to keep out the freezing fog.
Also very impressive are the central performances by the ever-wonderful Asia
Argento and the muscular-yet sensitive Unel.