Friday June 27, 1997
Tony Gatlif's "Mondo" is even more magical than "Latchmo Drom," his mesmerizing celebration of Gypsy music and culture retracing the migration of the Rom people from India to Europe 1,000 years ago. Instead of finding rapturous beauty in the often vast, gorgeous nomadic locales of "Latchmo Drom," Gatlif, an Algerian-born French national of Gypsy origin, discovers similar glories of nature in an unexpected, more challenging locale: the chic, prosperous South of France resort of Nice and its environs.
He sets its busy boulevards against wide overhead shots that show the majesty of the seaport's setting. He explores the lush foliage of the hillside villas, pausing to contemplate a dewdrop on a petal. He allows us to appreciate the beauty of the shamefully disintegrating estate in nearby Menton of once-famous writer Vicente Blasco Iban~ez, whose World War I novel, "The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse," became the film that launched the legend of Rudolph Valentino. Above all, Gatlif takes us into the company of free spirits, individuals who live apart from the rush of daily life.
In adapting a 1978 novel by the esteemed Nice-born author Jean-Marie Le Clezio, Gatlif acquaints us with these people through their contact with a boy named Mondo (Ovidiu Balan, an 11-year-old Romanian Gypsy). Le Clezio began his story stating that "no one knew where Mondo came from," and Gatlif takes it from there. Mondo doesn't seem either to know or want to say how he happened to pop up in Nice one day, but he's a handsome kid with a radiant smile unafraid to go up to a stranger and ask, "Would you like to adopt me?"
Although no one does in the formal sense, Mondo, who is likable, resilient and resourceful, has no trouble making friends and surviving. He'll unload produce, collect coins for a street magician/tightrope walker (none other than Philippe Petit, who famously crossed the two towers of the World Trade Center on a wire), learn how to read from an elderly sailor-fisherman (Maurice Maurin) and hang out with a homeless Scotsman (Jerry Smith), who becomes a key father figure. Most important, he is offered permanent refuge by the kindly Thi Chin (Pierette Fesch), an older woman who tells him she is a Vietnamese Jew and who lives in a fine old villa above the city.
(Fesch is in fact the widow of Jacques Fesch, who was guillotined in 1957 at age 27 for having shot to death a policeman in the course of a botched bank robbery, but has been submitted for beatification by the cardinal-archbishop of Paris for the intensity of his religious conversion in prison. You would not know this from the film, any more than you would probably be able to figure out that the oranges covered with writing that Mondo collects at the beach bear pleas for help from Algerian women.)
What Gatlif has done with such consummate artistry is to catch us up in a parallel universe, one that is at one with nature, that exists unobtrusively alongside the workaday world of Nice. What Gatlif--and Le Clezio--are saying is that society threatens this world at the danger of losing its soul.
The climax of "Mondo" is an absolute stunner, requiring the greatest finesse to pull off on the screen. At that point, we realize there has been some exceedingly deft foreshadowing, but this is one allegory that doesn't reveal itself to be one until its astonishing finish.
Mondo, 1997. Unrated. A Shadow release in association with Upstate Films of a production of KG Productions with the participation of Canal Plus and the Centre National de Cinematographie. Writer-director Tony Gatlif. Producer Michele Ray-Gavras. Based on the story by Jean-Marie Le Clezio. Cinematographer Eric Guichard. Editor Nicole V.D. Berckmans. Musical director Alain Weber. Set designer Denis Mercier. In French, with English subtitles. Running time: 1 hour, 33 minutes. Ovidiu Balan as Mondo. Philippe Petit as The Magician. Pierette Fesch as Thi-Chin. Jerry Smith as Dadi. Maurice Maurin as Giordan the Fisherman.