Director Tony Gatlif, whose latest film, “Vengo,” opened last Friday, vividly recalls his discovery of cinema.
One of 14 children growing up in Algeria in the 1950s (his mother was a gypsy from Andalusia, his father a Berber), he and his family and friends spent most of their days and nights outside.
“When the French army arrived, they wanted to set up a school,” he said over coffee last spring during a visit to New York. “They put up a fence.”
With his hands, Gatlif drew in the air the outline of a box, suggesting a barren space children were to be herded into. “Even though we were given a kilo of milk if we went, we didn’t want to go to this school.
“But there was one very clever teacher, who had a 16-millimeter projector and put up sheets on the blackboard, and the first film he showed us was ‘Jeux Interdit,”’ said Gatlif, 53, his dark, deep-set eyes on his weathered face growing brighter, as he recalled Rene Clement’s 1952 classic (“Forbidden Games”) about a Parisian girl orphaned during World War II and taken in by a farmer’s family. “It wasn’t the story I saw on the screen. I saw France, cows, children who looked different than we did. We didn’t have magazines. I had never seen these things in pictures. I thought everything in the film existed for real.”
“Vengo” is set in villages in rural southern Spain and revolves around a blood feud raging between two powerful gypsy families, a vendetta whose harsh edges such modern trappings as Mercedes and cell phones have not softened. Caco, the main character, is mourning his daughter’s death and dotes on his disabled nephew, who is warm and wise and whose own father is in hiding because he killed a member of the rival Caravaca family.
The Caravacas seek revenge, and Caco throws spirited fiestas with fiery flamenco music to hold death at bay. The film moves from one fiesta to the next, its energy propelled not only by the music (for which Gatlif, who wrote most of it, was awarded the French equivalent of an Oscar), but also by the overpowering, often desperate passions of its characters.
“For 20 years I had wanted to make a film tracing the origins of flamenco, and the moment arrived,” Gatlif said. “The story of the vendetta is just a pretext.”
Flamenco in “Vengo” is not a staged performance but erupts organically in the characters’ daily lives, and each song evokes a different epoch in the music’s development. Early on, a singer recalls the 13th century Sufi poet Rumi, who loved God with a passion and whirled himself into ecstatic trances. Later, when the legendary flamenco singer La Caita sings for Caco and his family in a tavern, a group of policemen joins in. Crucial to flamenco is the concept of duende , which Gatlif refers to often and which has been variously translated as soul, the spirit of the earth and the power to attract through personal magnetism. In popular Spanish culture, duende is a mischievous household hobgoblin.
But Gatlif’s duende is that of the poet Federico Garcia Lorca, who wrote of it as it was understood in Andalusia, whose singers “know that no emotion is possible unless the duende comes” and that it must be awakened “in the remotest mansions of the blood.”
Gatlif describes duende as magical, “a trance you enter into that’s higher than a state of grace.”
Capturing such spirit on film made for some unconventional shooting. “We start to make a big fiesta,” Gatlif said, “we go on until it gets good, with drinks, with dance, maybe we’ll start shooting around 7 and go all night.” Scripts become superfluous. “I want spectators to be an invitee to the fiesta. Nobody’s coddling them; you’re immediately in the middle of it.”
To capture that sense of “absolute reality” Gatlif felt when he watched “Jeux Interdit” as a child, he uses nonprofessional actors. “Before we started shooting, we were driving around deepest Spain,” said Thierry Pouget, the film’s director of photography. “And when Tony saw an older person with an unusual face, he’d talk to them about being in the film, and they’d agree.”
Antonio Canales, who plays Caco, is an acclaimed flamenco dancer, but doesn’t dance in the film. “What attracted me to him was his force, his energy,” Gatlif said. “Keeping him from dancing ensured that all the frustration would come out in his acting.”
Gatlif began his career as an actor in Paris. In the early 1960s, his family left Algeria for Marseilles.
He spent some time in reform school as a teenager, and later he began acting, “accidentally, when I was 17 or 18 years old,” he said. “I wanted to be in cinema, that’s where all the pretty women were.” He acted in Shakespeare and Beckett in theaters in Paris, but didn’t agree with the way actors were directed and turned to filmmaking.
Gatlif has made more than a dozen films, most dealing with gypsy life. “It took him a few pictures to find his voice,” said Samuel Blumenfeld, a film critic for Le Monde, speaking by phone from Paris.
His 1993 film, “ Latcho Drom " (“Safe Journey”), mournfully traced gypsy migrations of the last 1,000 years, from India to Europe. In “Mondo” (1994), a gypsy boy arrives one day in the seaside city of Nice, and the free-spirited people he meets are blessed with good luck until he leaves. “ Gadjo Dilo " (“Crazy Outsider,” 1997) features a young Parisian traveling to Romania to find a singer his nomadic father loved.
“‘Vengo’ speaks about death. In that respect it’s different from my other films,” said Gatlif. “In Andalusia, death is always present, in the stores, in the cafes, on the engravings of Christ. ‘Vengo’ means ‘I come,’ or ‘I avenge,’ ‘I’m here with a purpose.’
“The film is like an opera, the story is very brief. If the emphasis were on the story, there would be no room for the music. I wanted the film to feel the heartbeats, the dancing, the clapping, the nervous rhythms.”