While I have long since been aware of the career of Tony Gatlif actually watching one of his films had previously eluded me. The French-Algerian polymath of Romani descent, who counts directing, composing, acting, producing and screenwriting as strings on his bow, has been making films for close to forty years. Revolving around Romany culture across the world, Gatlif’s films, like his characters, exist on the fringes of the mainstream.
TranSylvania, now re-released on DVD, offers Gatlif-virgins like myself the perfect opportunity to check out his brand of film-making. Vibrant, attuned to its milieu, poetic and narratively loose limbed, TranSylvania is the work of someone entirely in sync with his material and its construction.
This rough-hewn but visually rich road movie-cum-love story pulls off a neat trick in being earthy and otherworldly, grimly real and humorously off-beat. Zingarina (Asia Argento), a pregnant Italian searching Transylvania for the musician father of her unborn child, undergoes a journey as painfully spiritual and emotional as it is physically demanding. While this may be a trait common to the central figures in almost all road movies, TranSylvania as a whole is anything but well worn. Together with the unkempt, morally dubious but charismatic Tchangalo (Birol Unel), a traveling merchant drawn to her first out of curiosity and then with growing affection, their travels, actual and metaphoric, will encompass birth, rebirth, redemption, salvation and acceptance. Loyalty, tradition, religion and superstition all play a role in compelling the tortured figure of Zingarina to ‘go native’ and the wayward figure of Tchangalo to reconnect with his emotions.
Music, Bacchanalian revelry and outsiderdom are obvious interests for Gatlif, with Zingarina, Tchangalo and those they either clash with or befriend all seemingly extensions of the director and his world view. The casting of Argento and Birol, one exotic and one of mixed heritage, is canny and apt, and Gatlif’s eclectic shooting style is an ideal reflection of his protagonists’ restless energy. TranSylvania is as cleansing to the viewing palate as the pair’s experiences are to their emotional states.
Neil has awarded TranSylvania four Torches of Truth