Venice 2000 REVIEW: 'Andalusian Dog, Gatlif's 'Vengo'
by Andy Bailey
(indieWIRE/ 9.12.00) — What a relief to receive Tony Gatlif‘s lightweight Andalusian Gypsy musical “Vengo” as the closing film of the 57th Venice International Film Festival, especially after portentous, heavy-handed fare like Clara Law‘s “The Goddess of 1967,” Robert Lepage‘s “Possible Worlds,” Sharunas Bartas‘ “Freedom” — like watching paint dry — not to mention the parade of disturbing, over-the-top violence that coursed through several films. Swallowed glass in Tom Tykwer‘s “The Princess and the Warrior“; fishhooks up the vagina in Ki-duk Kim‘s “Seom” (“The Isle”); intestinal evisceration in Tarsem‘s “The Cell” and Takeshi Kitano‘s “Brother.” After Venice’s incessant tidal wave of gore, an innocuous, unthreatening musical like “Vengo” was a welcome digestif. Even when Gatlif’s flamenco revenge drama threatened to blow away in the hot southern Mediterranean wind–no thanks to its wisp of a plot–the half-dozen musical numbers that pepper the vibrant but vapid French-Spanish co-production were enough to keep even the most jaded festival-goer held in exotic thrall for its brief 90-minute running time.
Canvassing the same ribald terrain as Emir Kusturica‘s ethnographic charmers, Gatlif’s latest (following arthouse hits “Latcho Drom” and “Gadjo Dilo“) forsakes the peripatetic Gypsy milieu of central Europe in favor of the more hot-blooded, stationery realm of Andalusia in southern Spain — its dusty, Moorish villages, tension-fueled family vendettas and sultry flamenco rhythms that feel like figments of some faraway past. Caco (Antonio Canales) is the patriarch of a diminishing Andalusian clan that includes his retarded and horny nephew Diego (Orestes Villasan Rodriguez) and a trio of black-clad harridans whose sole function consists of cleaning house, picking olives and mixing whitewash in a cauldron (like the witches in “Macbeth“) to paint over the recurring accusatory graffiti scrawled outside Caco’s property by members of the rival Caravaca clan, who hold Caco to blame for the death of one of its own.
“That scumbag family,” as Caco refers to the hirsute, nattily attired, grizzled, cell-phone wielding, Mercedes-driving Caravaca brood — reminiscent of some death metal supergroup from more Northern climes — soon threatens to kill poor defenseless Diego unless Caco atones for his alleged crime. Eventually you can’t distinguish all the heated bickering among Caco and the Caravacas from the sultry tap n’ clap of Vengo’s sinuous musical outbursts, which arrive in almost spontaneous fashion, when the movie seems to need them the most. In Gatlif’s world, characters stop whatever they’re doing, whip up a vat of sangria and cut loose dancing, even if it means pulling over a truck and dancing on its flat bed at the side of the road. While “Vengo” seems to take itself far too seriously during its silly Caco/Caravaca confrontational scenes, the musical numbers feel nothing less than genuine.
Those reared on the canned FM-lite of the Gipsy Kings will positively revel in “Vengo’s” seductively choreographed flamenco scenes, featuring street performers plucked from various Andalusian ghettos. The runaway star of “Vengo” — her five minutes on screen alone prove vastly more exciting than anything in the main plot — is a firebrand flamenco singer from the gypsy ghetto of Estremadura called La Caita, whom Gatlif introduced in his previous film “Latcho Drom.” Like an Andalusian PJ Harvey or Diamanda Galas, the stone-faced wailer sings with such passionate ferocity that you expect audience members to suddenly levitate from their seats in ecstasy, or else throw themselves at the foot of the screen in insane devotion at this haunting gutter diva of the Plaza Alta de Badajoz — something the 57th Venice International Film Festival truly needed, as very few films screened elicited any semblance of an emotional response.
But “Vengo” is too silly and inconsistent to merit such a rabid response from its audience. The gorgeous musical numbers aren’t enough to compensate for a humdrum revenge plot that’s anticlimactic and innocuous at best — in the end the film feels like “Lambada” with sangria and skankier suits. The film doesn’t linger for too long, mercifully. It feels like it’s over in an instant, and you appreciate it for that — just what you want at the end of an exhausting festival. Gatlif makes an admirable attempt to provide the widest-possible cultural glimpse into the lives of his beloved flamenco-addled Andalusian Gypsies. But unlike Emir Kusturica, a director who knows how to slip effortlessly from the musical to the miserable, Gatlif seems incapable of making his scenes meld together seamlessly. He’s an adept choreographer of musical performers and he succeeds in capturing the sultry, almost spiritual vibrancy of flamenco music. But the remainder of “Vengo” feels like third-rate Gypsy Tarantino. I hate to say it, but the film is an Andalusian dog.