Summary: The Romani figure has, since the time of silent film, found representation on the silver screen. Whether as a main character, (or much more frequently as a cameo or a supporting role,) a myriad of cinematic displays of Romani people, with a distinct culture and history, have been put forward…but to what end, to whose benefit, and to what degree have these depictions served as propaganda?
Let us analyze a string of these films, breaking them down to see what place, as a collective whole, the Romani figure has and what value it is to the Gadje film industry to not change the age-old misperceptions.
In this blog and under the tab "Gypsy Film", Galina Trefil, film director and writer and Romni herself (see photo) will regularly publish on films produced by the gadje film industry.
You will find her first analysis below:
Outcast: "What's Romani Got to Do with It?"
While a number of traditional Romani characters from novels are well-known and have been represented repeatedly in movies, (The Hunchback of Notre Dame’s Esmeralda, Wuthering Heights’ Heathcliff; et cetera,) one should be careful not to assume that these “celebrities” have the final say in the public opinion. The devil being in the details, it is very often a constant barrage of less familiar individuals, all wilted roses by different names, that leave the deepest impact. As Adolf Hitler so famously said: “Make the lie big, make it simple, keep saying it, and eventually they will believe it.”
Outcast (2010) is a good example of this. At face value, it is a typical horror movie. On a positive note, the sepia and shadows cinematography gives the film a campfire horror story effect. The sound editing and dramatic use of silence makes those edgy moments just a little bit more edgy. It is also very well acted, starring Kate Dickie, (recently best known on television’s “Game of Thrones,”) Niall Burton, James Nesbitt, Ciaran McMenamin, and, in her first role, Hanna Stanbridge as “Petronella.”
Perhaps the first hiccup in the film is the description of it.
As summarized on the back of the DVD: “It tells the tale of Petronella (a Scottish/Romany girl) and Fergal (her mysterious Irish traveller boyfriend). As their doomed relationship plays out, a Beast stalks the estate, killing locals, working its way towards our protagonists. Meanwhile Cathal and Liam, two mysterious travellers from Ireland use ritual and magic on a blood hunt. Mary, Fergal's mother performs ritual and magic of her own. As Cathal comes face to face with Mary in a vicious finale we know one thing: the Beast must die.”
If audiences did not read this description, I frankly doubt that there would be any who would at all guess that Petronella is supposed to be Romani. I would not have and half of those who reviewed the film made no mention of her inserted ethnic origin either. Without the DVD summary, I would absolutely have been able to watch just another horror flick and enjoy or dislike it for what it was without spending a moment to break down exactly what its writers and director might have been either getting at or capitalizing on.
However, since Petronella is declared Romani, let’s look at how she and her family are portrayed. It takes a meager three minutes into the film for us to see into her world: a dank, alcoholic, untidy flat in a gang-graffitied, street-thug neighborhood of Ireland. So, even before Petronella gets a single word in, her atmosphere is spot-on to what the media so loves to paint the Romani people as belonging to: filth and crime. Strike one.
Petronella’s brother suffers from extreme, yet unclear, mental defects. Her mother is an irresponsible drunk, dependent upon government care. Her father is…somewhere…maybe. It’s hard to tell if he just up and ran off altogether. Either way, it is Petronella’s lot to cook and clean for the parental ne’er-do-wells and take care of her brother, the stereotypical can’t-do-well. For added pinache, despite the fact that her description is “Scottish Romany,” one gets a distinct feeling, (perhaps added to by her brother’s first name being “Tomatsk,”) that her family might be immigrants from Eastern Europe. Given that the majority of Romani children and youths are depicted as mentally inferior there, the family depiction serves as a good strike two.
Petronella enters the frame for the first time, dark and beautiful, wearing short shorts, setting the age-old costuming stage for the majority of Romani female characters. Petronella will remain low-cut and thighs exposed in practically every scene in the movie. Thankfully, the film does not require her nudity, though it does expect it in spades from Kate Dickie’s portrayal of "Mary," a Traveller woman, practicing the ancient Traveller arts of… Scandanavian blood magic and runic warfare. (A detailed analysis of how inappropriately this film portrays the Traveller community is best left for a different article.)
Petronella’s immodesty comes with typical unchastity to match. As Petronella and Fergal are bonding over Fergal’s kindness to Petronella’s brother, she insists flirtatiously on him pushing her on the swing. Flashbacks of this sequence will be played back later in the movie in slow motion, with her miniskirt flying up, exposing black panties. Fourteen minutes into the film, a group of young Irish Gadje approach and a fight ensues, establishing that Petronella has slept with one of them and that he bragged about it to all his friends. He calls her a “slag.” She fires back a few times that he has a “wee dick.”
There are definitely more than three strikes by this point. Anyone expecting to see anything even vaguely tied to Romani culture would be fairly well horrified by now, but, naturally, Outcast does not stop there. Five minutes later, Petronella and Fergal are somehow psychically masturbating simultaneously on either side of a wall at their next door apartments. As if the hyper-sexuality stereotype of Romani women wasn’t enough, Petronella is masturbating in front of her brother during this scene. Fergal’s relationship with his mother is also increasingly incestuous throughout the movie’s progression.
There is a bleakness, a grungy form of sorrow for these Romani and Traveller characters. The audience is given a real inclination to pity them their uneducated, impoverished, scatterbrained failures, with a charitable attitude of “They know not what they do.” Both for teenager and adult characters, there is no concept of anyone here being able to work as, say, a bank teller, a doctor, a teacher. Heck, you would hesitate to even let these people hand you a tray at a fast food joint. At the same time, there is an ethereal depth to them. They seem untouchable because they have a mysterious loftiness about them; something special reserved to them alone by blood. “Me and my Mom, we’re from people who’re different than you. We’re not normal. Most of our people left this world. Those that stayed just hid in the shadows, waiting patiently,” Fergal tells Petronella before they lean in for their first kiss. There is absolutely fairy dust, unicorns, and dragons in these peoples’ ancestry. The magic DNA seduces the audience at the same time they are pleasantly repelled.
While there are certain negative stereotypes about the Romani people that Petronella is not linked directly to, they are nonetheless present in the film—hoisted onto the Traveller woman’s character instead. In one scene, while threatened with eviction by a lovely blond (of course, blond,) Housing Officer, Fergal’s mother puts a curse on her that she will forget where she came from; be unable to ever find her way back. Eventually, the Beast finds her, drags her into an alley, (where we see the stripped and mutilated body of another Gadji,) and kills her. Thus does the popular fable of the abduction and destruction of the Aryan angel present itself a half hour into the movie.
However, whilst Romani and Traveller may share certain stereotypes, Petronella and Mary certainly are no great examples of that. Cautioning Petronella to stay away from her son, Mary is pelted back by her with, “Just fuck off, alright?” Immediately afterwards, Petronella takes Fergal to a sleazy, broken-down building and graphically attempts to seduce him. This attempt fails, but, skipping along through much blood and runic gore, eventually she manages this feat on a public jungle gym at night. Sex promptly turns him into the Beast, showing that—aha—the Traveller lad had been the one all along slaughtering the nice Gadje ladies! Petronella runs away from him at first; then manages to stab him. He dies and, now dead, becomes human again.
The film ends with Petronella begging for a living on a sidewalk—homeless and pregnant—as a Traveller elder of possibly dubious intent gives her a charm to protect Fergal’s likely-monster unborn baby.
As for why exactly Fergal was a beast, this is never explained fully, though it is pointed out that the union between his Traveller mother and Gadjo father is forbidden. Effectively, the implication goes that mixed blood caused the monstrosity. So perhaps it is serves as yet another reminder: Gadje, don’t have children with the Traveller community or, if you do, when they are old enough, they will be murderous and twisted freaks of nature with the capacity to kill their White parent.
The film was directed by Colm McCarthy. He co-wrote it with Tom McCarthy. Its producers are John McDonnell and Brendan McCarthy. The film’s success is debatable, though it did make it to the Cannes Film Festival.
Perhaps the focus should not be on the financial gain in this particular case, but rather on the sheer amount of negative ideas about Romani women which all managed to get squeezed into such a brief time frame. If the writers had been making a list of how many rotten concepts surround the Roma, practically every single one, short of child stealing, presents in this movie. And the biggest irony about that is that, nowhere in the film do the words “Gypsy,” “Roma,” or “Romani” ever appear…. There is no Romani flag in the background or any other obvious indicator that these are Roma characters.
So…could it be that “Romany” was a gimic? Just a means to sell more copies? Get more viewers? Was it perhaps, to some degree, even an afterthought to state on the DVD box that Petronella was Romany at all, when it is utterly absent from the dialogue?
I will hand it to the creators: if it was a gimic, it is effective. The curious will buy it just to get a glimpse into “Gypsy life.” Romani people might buy it just to see whether or not we will be given any theatrical respect finally…or continue to have our ethnic reputation strung up like a puppet, dancing for those who have contempt for us, our traditions, and our history.
All in all, I would recommend this film to actual, genuine Romani people only if they have great ability to remain calm and avoid nausea in the face of adversity. Buckle up if you do watch it, Romanies, because, emotionally, it is likely to be a very bumpy ride.
October 1, 2014
A new film review, by Galina Trefil
“SUBSPECIES”: Who Needs Character?
One might be inclined to give a lengthy description of this film’s basic plotline and how its Romani roles are portrayed…only the first option is completely irrelevant and the second does even not exist. So what makes this movie worthy of a critique? No pun intended, but it is the subplot of Subspecies, without which, there would be no film; nor the several sequels that followed it.
Subspecies was written by Charles Band, Jackson Barr, and David Pabian. It was directed by Ted Nicolaou and produced by Ion Ionescu.
To start with the positive….
Released in 1991, it was shot on location in Romania, giving a ring of beauty and authenticity to the picture. According to Wikipedia, it also has the distinction of being the first US film ever made there, so a round of applause to the crew and cast on their paving of the way for much more usage of a stunning geographic atmosphere.
The musical score drifts between simply lilting and darkly passionate. It furthermore has the umph to tackle some traditional Romanian-style tunes with authentic instruments. The Claymation devil critters, for nearly 25 years ago, are respectably done; definitely repugnant. What the movie lacks regarding costume flare, it makes up for in makeup design so much that the villain wound up with action figures being molded after him. (Granted, a great deal of this makeup was uncreatively based upon 1922’s Nosferatu, but it still came out creepy, icky, and jaw-dropping.)
Kudos given, let’s start adding the strikes…. The place where the Romani people make their entrance comes through the mouth of a folktale-telling, vampire-paranoid crone. As per her legend, during an Ottoman attack into Romania, vampires killed and dined on the invading Turks. Consequently, the locals gifted them with a castle…only to realize that, hey, a vampire’s still a vampire and Romanians were now rather predictably on the menu. Up pops a Gypsy to save the day…by stealing a magical thingamabob which drips the addictive blood of saints. The Gypsy gives it to the vampires and, badda bing, they no longer have to order takeout, as it were.
Centuries later, during pagan celebrations held by the town in order to try to find modern-day vampires, amidst joyful dancing, festive music, and the tearing out of decaying human hearts from corpses so as to facilitate some recreational cannibalism, all the local Romanians wear masks, depicting their Gypsy hero. The masks are big-eared, mammoth-nosed, squinty-eyed, yellow-skinned; scraggly-haired…. Did I forget anything? Oh, yes! And horned!
After the apparently-not-paranoid crone winds up being vampire dinner, the locals parade her decapitated head around the area, pouring holy water on it and then covering it back up again with the Gypsy mask.
So what are the main messages being portrayed? 1. Gypsies steal. They’re expected to by others. It’s okay for them culturally. 2. Gypsies are capable of access to mysterious pagan forces that Gadje are not; forces which result in death and or insanity. 3. Gypsies are linked to grave-robbing, mutilation of the dead, and, just as we were accused of by the Inquisition, eating human flesh. 4. We are ugly, disheveled, unhygienic, and satanic.
Beyond the racial problems presented by these four issues, there are two further things to point out: this legend created for the film supposedly happens during the medieval period. During that time, in all three of the Romanian principalities, the Romani people were slaves. It is a common romantic notion held by the dominant ethnic group that those who are raped, tortured, trafficked, held in bondage; et cetera, would be inclined to rescue those who subjugate them. Essentially, it implies that, despite all the oppression, the oppressed are the good and faithful dogs that masters always hoped for/ beat the Romani into being. (Perhaps the story of a Romani slave not caring if the masters wound up with a dose of karma just isn’t catchy enough….)
Secondly, it is irrevocably tacky to use the Romani people as an artistic balancing device, whilst not portraying a single Romani character. Essentially, it demeans us into being nothing but a voiceless prop. The one-scene of “mysterious Gypsy” cameo is cliché enough in Hollywood. The theme of spinning gossipy, stereotypical ethnic webs outranks it though.
The Romani are there….
The Romani are not there….
The Romani are there…and silenced….
This is a classical method of plot filler; needs to stop being used so that the actual good work that went into the films perpetrating it may be appreciated. It seems a very little thing, this anti-Romani sentiment, stacked up against the rest of the film’s actual story, but it has been done so many times that, when adding together with all the cases of other films using the Romani in the exact same way, the one small chip away from our dignity winds up a combined landslide of our humanity.
A word to those in film: if you would not want a Romani person standing across the room from you like wallpaper, don’t portray us like we are objects when the camera is rolling. The reputation of our ethnic group was not meant to be used for decorative purposes and to do so has serious implications and heavy consequences. You may not live with them, but we will.
October 17, new film review, by Galina Trefil:
“HANNIBAL RISING”: Porrajmos Gone Casual
While films with Romani stereotypes thrown out casually continue to descend upon Hollywood like a plague of locusts, there are the rare times when slices of authentic Romani history as seen through the dual eyes of both the Romani and the Gadje community do manage to squeeze past the prejudicial gates. Such an instance is seen in Hannibal Rising, (2007), starring Gaspard Ulliel as the infamous cannibal, Hannibal Lector. Whilst one would expect the eerie and cheeky, head-hunting proverbial chef from Hell, (youthfully shy of achieving his psychiatric doctorate), of being the being the villain to put the Romani people on a silver platter in this film, oh no. Quite the contrary. It is in fact so contrary that this film subtly puts forward a rather pertinent disgrace regarding the Porrajmos which a series of governments worldwide bear responsibility for.
The positive: for the horror genre, there is actually an incredible amount to recommend this film artistically. From lush Lithuanian forests to swanky Parisian cafes, the viewer has a strong sense of authentic timeline. The costuming, set off by the ever-pearlescent Gong Li, who plays Lady Murasaki, Hannibal’s seductive aunt-by-marriage, is well-researched. Props chime from scene to scene like eye candy. The music dances between tragically funereal and putting an ill feeling in one’s stomach, almost like someone is about to come from behind and smack you on the shoulder. And, while brief, the war scenes are heart-cutting to the point that families of Holocaust victims would be ill-advised to not have tissues handy when watching.
As for the portrayal of the Roma... well, there is none. But the lack of present Romani characters is actually, for once, a very powerful cinematic tool, perhaps showcasing the viciousness of the true bad guys. It’s a sad thing when a cannibal psychopath comes out looking good regarding human rights, but this time, pathetically, in many ways, that is exactly what happens.
Main plot: a gang of SS-wannabes fall upon Castle Lector when little Hannibal’s family has just escaped it. They shoot one servant for being Jewish; then descend upon a second. He is restrained and Vladis Grutas, the gang’s leader, (chillingly played by Rhys Ifans,) sniffs him distastefully before inspecting his ears in order to see if they are pierced. Grutas asks him if he is a Gypsy, intent to shoot him also if the answer is affirmative. The man denies it, but the gang seems unconvinced. They begin to strip him to inspect his genitalia for circumcision. This easy flip-flop between condemning him for Romani blood or Jewish blood is something that, to the Romani community, might be taken for granted. Naturally, we understand just how par for the course this was. However, the mainstream Gadje community, by and large, do not. By the film emphasizing this lack of favoritism—in fact, making it even casual how equally the two are hated, it imparts a huge, however softly delivered, piece of historical information to the Gadje audience.
Later on, this same gang kidnaps the Lector children, Hannibal and his beloved little sister, Mischa, in order to eat both of them to avoid war-imposed famine. Hannibal just barely survives, but Mischa is butchered.
Flash forward to years later where the orphaned Hannibal finds his way to his long-lost aunt for shelter and, under her care, kindness, tutelage of Japanese weaponry, the Samurai code, (not to mention floral arranging and manners of etiquette,) he begins to open up. When a Nazi war collaborator gropes and racially slurs her in public, young Hannibal throws caution to the wind though and essentially says, along with a lot of the audience, “If no one else will do anything about war criminals, let’s get to it!”
Hannibal then gruesomely hops from country to country, savagely and mercilessly giving former Nazi after former Nazi doses of their own medicine, sometimes stopping for a rather unorthodox recipe of shish kabobs while he’s at it.
Here the movie inserts Inspector Popil (Dominic West,) who recognizes Hannibal for what he is and has strong moral objections to these murders, even though Popil has sworn to apprehend the same men that Hannibal is bent on killing. As the Inspector and Hannibal go toe-to-toe throughout the rest of the film, we learn that Vladis Grutas committed more war crimes—pouring acid down the throat of a witness to prevent a Nuremburg trial, sawing off a rabbi’s head, and shooting Gypsy children in a forest. Once more, these crimes are rattled off in a single statement, pointing out to the audience, just as in the beginning of the film, that to Nazis, Jewish and Romani people both were equally targeted. Unlike so many other films which touch on the Porrajmos, there is no hint, implication, insinuation, or flat-out statement that Jews suffered more here.
And, as the film progresses, we see more and more that, while Inspector Popil may mean well, he simply just is not getting the job done. His fair and legal way doesn’t work. There’s no full explanation as to why, but here’s one guess that Romani viewers from Holocaust families will understand very well: even the most well-meaning legal aid is very often blocked from being able to prosecute the murderers of Roma adults and, yes, even our children.
Just for one very common World War II example: how many of the guards of the Lety Concentration Camp were well-known to the Czech community? How many of them were prosecuted? How many bureaucrats after the war were perfectly content to let the killers of the Romani people go? These men did not have to go into hiding, change their names; start over, like so many other Nazis did. Essentially, they got “free murders.” They were allowed to gas Roma, shoot Roma, beat Roma, rape Roma, and drown our newborn babies with not so much as a post-war slap on the wrist.
So in that perspective, one finds themselves asking, “If it were my family today…slaughtered…would I really want Inspector Popil on the case... or for the killers to rub Hannibal Lector the wrong way, prompting him to break out a cookbook?”
Note to Europe: you’ve got a lot to answer for. If Porrajmos survivors are still alive, there are still Porrejmos perpetrators alive. Where are the arrests? Where have they been for all these decades since the war ended? Why is it that a character like Inspector Popil, who at least wants to bring the killers of the Romani down, is, even as a failure, so much better than the average investigator when still, to this day, Romani people are murdered?
Note to Hollywood: as absurd as it sounds, you made the Porrajmos go casual by dropping a few lines in here and there about it. And, in-so-doing, perhaps you opened up a few eyes. We may have lost a smaller number of people than some other groups, but we lost a higher percentage of our people, up to 95% in at least one country. Where’s the recognition? Well, you gave us a taste of that. And the lack of Romani characters actually points out just how obliterated our population after the war really was.
Thank you, Thomas Harris for writing it. Thank you, Peter Webber for directing it. And, thank you, Dino de Lorentiis, Martha de Lorentiis, and Tarak Ben Ammar for producing it. If the film made a profit of nearly $32 million dollars, that’s a lot of eyes and ears to have either learned or be reminded of a valuable fact: the Porrajmos happened... and fiendishly… and, barring vigilantism, by people who just plain got away with it.
November 10, 2014
New film review, by Galina Trefil:
“King of Devil’s Island”: Criminal or Kidnapped?
The award-winning Norwegian Bastøy Prison, located on a square-mile island, is famous throughout the world for its liberal, humane, and, to some thought, even over-indulgent treatment of its inmates…yet this was not always so. The island has a darker history, not as an adult prison, but as one for juvenile delinquents: Bastøy Boys’ Home.
“King of Devil’s Island” (2010) opens during this period in 1915, as two new offenders, Erling (Benjamin Helstad) and Ivar (Magnus Langlete,) are being brought to start their sentences. After the ritual dehumanizing process that prisons/ boys’ homes are known for of disinfection, hair-cutting, and the nude marching through the rows of other inmates, we become familiar with the film’s other three main characters: morose and near-broken inmate leader Olav (Trond Nillsen,) the self-serving Bastøy Boys’ Home governor Bestyreren (Stellan Skarsgård,) and the sadistic barrack housefather Bråthen (Kristoffer Joner.) The screen has a permanent tint of blue, giving a bleak sense of isolation and hopelessness, as the film immediately settles into an endless stream of brutal manual labor, vicious food deprivation, beatings from the staff which descend into the realm of genuine torture, as well as prolonged sexual abuse. The sexual abuse, perpetrated by Bråthen, eventually leads Ivar to put stones in his pockets and drown himself in the sea. Bestyreren gives the impression to the prisoners that he has sent Bråthen away, but it turns out to be a ruse. When the child-rapist is put in a power position again over the children, ages eleven to eighteen, they revolt and make an attempt at freedom.
All in all, this is a very well-done film. The acting is spot-on excellent from all players. The score is quite appropriately depression personified. The sets are well-designed to the point that one can look at photos and footage from the original time of the quite-real revolt and things match up perfectly. Lighting is either overly bright, giving the viewer the sensation that nothing can possibly be hid from the film’s oppressors, or the screen is shrouded in a series of shadows, revealing the filthy underbelly of the establishment.
So where is the problem?
The problem lies in the fact that, behind this film, there lurks a disturbing racist and political agenda, which, without the audience researching the actual story, would remain as hidden as, no doubt, without this revolt, much of these human rights abuses would have also.
At one point in the film, Bråthen does a hygiene inspection of the children, which includes smelling behind their ears. To one small child, he says, “Doesn’t look like we can get rid of your Gypsy smell. That’s what happens when you’re born out of your mother’s asshole.” To me, this prompted the question of how heated the racial discrimination in Norway around this time had become. The answer is that, only eight years prior to when the Bastøy Boys’ Home Revolt happened, Romani children were routinely being kidnapped from their families by the Norwegian government and, specifically, the Christian organization known as the Association to Counteract Vagabondism. Romani children were put into work camps and subjected to the same standard cultural, linguistic, and religious rape of identity, not to mention their freedom, that has been viciously perpetrated against Romani people of all ages in a plethora of countries throughout Europe for centuries.
This information is key to the writing of the film because one huge factoid of suppressed data in the script is that the main character who led the revolt was, rather than ethnic Norwegian, a Romani youth from Oslo. However, the makers of the film decided to ignore this and have him portrayed as, while a hero, a rebel, a teen that will absolutely not surrender dignity and liberty, one who will fight to bring a corrupt system to its knees, instead of him being Romani…he is instead White.
As the government-sanctioned abduction of Romani children for slave labor is something all Romani people are well-familiar with, so too are we familiar with the fact that whenever one of us does something noteworthy, they are generally appropriated by mainstream society, with consent or not, and declared Caucasian. If one were to look at the Wikipedia list of famous Roma and Sinti, one would often find a huge amount of discord between Romani people and Caucasians who refuse to allow certain famous Roma and Sinti to be known as members of their true ethnicity. While these well-known Romanies are appropriated away from their people, usually post-mortem which leaves them no room to personally argue against it, at the same time, bigots typically throw forward the question, “What have the Romani people ever accomplished? Name me one Romani person who has ever done anything.”
There is no way to argue with the racist logic that takes our achievers from us and then insults us for having no achievers directly afterwards. None.
As regards “King of Devil’s Island,” naturally, one must recognize that, if the film portrayed the hero as being Romani, there would have been a potential price to pay for it. Perhaps a Romani hero does not sell as many film tickets. Or perhaps, more likely, Norway does not want this massively embarrassing and bigoted part of its history, which paved the way for forced Romani sterilization even prior to World War II, to be highlighted. One word though: tough. If you’re going to make a film about the violation of human rights, you have to be upfront about the reality of the situation. And if it’s set during a time when your race was enough alone to have you jailed, then the filmmakers do not have the moral right to shy away from that fact. To do so is not only ethnically unfair and insulting, but, frankly, considering that the film does showcase just how little anyone had to do in order to be incarcerated in Bastøy Boys’ Home, (definitely Jean Valjean territory that we’re talking about here,) a one-liner establishing these historical details would’ve actually worked quite well into the plot. It would certainly have showcased just a little bit more how corrupt Bastøy Boys’ Home was, which seemed to be the goal of the writers in the first place….
One cannot put blame for this omission necessarily though on a specific person. There are many involved in the making of a film. This one boasts not one, but four writers, (Mette M. Bølstad, Lars Saabye Christensen, Dennis Magnusson; Eric Shmid,) obviously a director, Marius Holst, as well as a mighty nineteen producers. It’s impossible for the audience to know exactly which party or parties decided to leave the Romani origin of the hero out. However, at least, we did get a portrayal, during the hygiene inspection, that prisons did discriminate against Roma and, like usual, poor hygiene is one of the more preferred slurs hurled against us.
All in all, I would recommend this film, which is, in all other aspects, quite exemplary. Just be aware of the historical background that it is really set in when you do watch it. Was the hero, in reality, a criminal? Possibly. Or also quite possibly, he was just another kidnapped Romani youth designated for state-approved slave labor. Either way, these are two polar opposites worthy of bearing in mind.
November 16, 2014
New film review, by Galina Trefil:
The Tenth Kingdom (2000): Who Are the Real “Little Victims?”
In the realm of the Nine Kingdoms, which is populated by elves, faeries, talking animals, and just about every other mystical creature the mind can dream up, an evil queen, (Dianne Wiest,) sits in the Snow White Memorial Prison…until she is freed by an opportunistic and impulsive troll king (Ed O’Neill.) She turns her imprisoner, the haughty Prince Wendell, (Daniel Lapaine,) into a dog, but, through a magic mirror, he manages to escape in canine-form briefly into New York City Central Park, later dubbed the Tenth Kingdom. There he is taken in by cautious, beautiful Virginia (Kimberly Williams-Paisley) and her bumbling father Tony, (John Larroquette.) The three are chased back through the mirror, followed by a hyperactive, lovesick half-wolf, (whose parents had the creativity of naming him “Wolf,”) played by Scott Cohen and the troll king’s bickering, shoe-fetishy children Blabberwort (Dawnn Lewis,) Burly (Hugh O’Gorman,) and Blue Bell (Jeremiah Birkett.) For a total 417 minutes, (broadcast as nine episodes,) this group goes from nursery rhyme adventure to all throughout Grimm’s fairytales.
The 10-to-20 minute segments throughout this film, all touching on specific parts of childhood myth, are not only delightful for little ones, but also amusing enough to capture the attention of most adults who watch with them. Costuming is creative, makeup is above and beyond fantastic, locations are breathtaking, sets are whimsical, and the overall production certainly deserves to be described as epic….
Unfortunately, it can also be described as blisteringly racist, as fourteen of the 417 minutes are devoted specifically to a Diaspora People of Indian Origin…who just happen to nomadically be living in a dimension where India has never existed. Or is it perhaps the film’s implication that the Romani people are such talented wanderers that these particular ones could somehow have found their own magic mirror from whatever judging-by-their-clothes 18th century, funky-accented country in Europe they came from? If magic mirrors could have been found to transport Roma and Sinti to the land of Cinderella and Rapunzel, they likely would have ditched the genocide Caucasians were bestowing upon them, but it seems unlikely that they would still be burdened by the same conditions in this other dimension…or does it? Can bigotry endure even in the land of pixies and giants?
When Virginia, Tony, Wolf, and the turned-into-golden-statue Prince Wendell roam through the Disenchanted Forest, with the sound of men’s’ voices comes sudden and ominous music. Already two signs have appeared onscreen: “Trespassers will be considered poachers” and “All poachers will be shot by order of the Huntsman.” From out of the creepy music appears the threat of a snug Romani camp, complete with beautiful vardos. Despite the Romani men being big and scary—scary thanks to that dreadful music—their reaction to seeing these complete strangers, homeless and hungry, is to automatically invite them to sit down and eat with them. Wolf, all-knowing of the wily Romani ways, warns Virginia and Tony, “Do not refuse anything they offer, but do not consume anything you have not seen them eat first.”
Tony is presented with a giant hedgehog, cooked until it is black, with a slit down its stomach from which steam rises out. Rather than hedgehog being conveyed as a delicacy, (and the giving of it being actually a sign of great generosity and esteem,) it is used as a way to convey a large degree of general ickiness. Tony proclaims to the Romanies around him, “This is the best hedgehog I’ve had in weeks!” Then he winces as he eats an incredibly tiny bite, to which his daughter looks utterly repulsed.
In exchange for this hospitality, (all during which Romani people dance, slapping knees, around a fire to the heated music of the violin,) the hosts insist upon a song. Tony tries to refuse and tempers verge on flaring. Somehow one senses that this is the key to making the crazy Romani people just absolutely lose their marbles and, to prevent this, Tony acquiesces to pelt out a tune at them: “Gypsies, Tramps, and Thieves.” None of the hosts are amused by this. In fact, this might be the one moment in the fourteen minutes that the writer got right. Despite Wolf clapping and Virginia proclaiming, “That’s good, Dad!” to Tony’s performance, Romani people actually do not like to be called insulting names. We especially are not fond of being insulted by those to whom we have invited to our proverbial dinner table.
However, these particular Romani people must be a truly kind-hearted lot because they all are quite able to look past this atomic rudeness. Here enters actress Eve Pearce, who the writer of course had to name “Gypsy Queen.” The Gypsy Queen insists on reading all of their fortunes. No offer of payment is made by any of the guests to her for this service. In fact, she never asks for it either. She flat-out demands to read their fortunes for free, because, as we all know, Romani women have nothing better to do with their time than compulsively read cards for Gadje. (Granted, the part where the Gypsy Queen reads that Tony’s future is that of the fool, the oaf, the buffoon, and the village idiot, might have many an authentic Romani fortune-teller actually thinking, “Oh, yes, Gadjo, insult my cooking, call me a thief, and I will tell you that fortune!”) When reading Virginia’s fortune, the Gypsy Queen demands a lock of her hair, which is dropped into neon pink gooey stuff as it is told.
As Wolf asks for his romantic future to be prosperous, the Gypsy Queen tells him that he is not what he seems: he is a wolf! To which he replies, “So is your grandson.” (Dear readers, you didn’t expect to actually make it through this review without a Romani werewolf popping out, did you? Tisk, tisk. By now, you should definitely know that at least one of us has to sprout either fangs or a tail….)
The Gypsy Queen is so pleased with his response that she proclaims, beaming, “You must stay with us tonight. Friends must stay together in the dangerous forest.” (Friends? Exactly how are these people acting like friends to their hosts? I guess we are not supposed to ask that question either.)
All throughout this musical and entertaining free room and board, the background has little magical birds cheeping. To Virginia, they proclaim themselves to be “just little victims.” This phrase “little victims” winds up actually being repeated a few times, as Wolf explains that Gypsies are poachers; the only ones capable of catching these birds, who are sold to the rich so that their wings can be broken before they are gruesomely devoured.
Exactly whose land it is that the Romani people are “poaching” on seems to be an invalid thing for the audience to consider, but let’s point out at this time that this forest is controlled by the serial killing Huntsman, (Rutger Hauer,) on behalf of the evil mass murdering queen. Call me old-fashioned, but once you’ve crossed the line of slaughtering people on a regular basis, I don’t think you have the right to flip out about trespassing or the loss of a couple fowl quite so much.
And as for “Gypsies” being the only ones who can get these magical talking birds…really? Why? Because we’re just so magical ourselves that we are capable of doing what magic-lacking mere mortals can’t? Why is it that the Romani people onscreen look so broke and grungy then? These birds must not be in really high demand or you’d think that their capturers would get paid better than they obviously are. But I guess that we’re just supposed to either ignore too….
Whatever the specifics, Virginia frees all the “little victims” while the Romani people are asleep. The Gypsy Queen wakes up and tells the men to chase their former guests down, but then she abruptly calls them back. “I wish I knew why they gave up so easily,” Wolf whines. “That’s not like Gypsies at all.”
And, of course, he’s right that there’s a sinister reason for the Gypsy Queen to let the matter drop. She wants to…(dun, dun, DUN,)…put a curse on Virginia. (Once more, no one saw that one coming, did they?) Using Virginia’s hair in the now-bubbling pink goo, the Gypsy Queen chants out a wicked spell to make Virginia moan, scream, cry, and wish she were dead.
Before the Romani people can see the curse actually come to life, an arrow is shot into the camp, reading, “All poachers will be killed by order of the Huntsman.” Immediately, all of them, from the Gypsy Queen down to the last child, are murdered. The last image of the camp is a close-up as the Huntsman contemptuously yanks an arrow out of the werewolf Romani child’s heart….
The curse on Virginia makes her hair grow so long and heavy that both Wolf and Tony must carry it. The length leads to Wolf nearly being decapitated by a homicidal woodsman, played by James Cosmo, (another actor from the earlier-reviewed film Outcast,) as Wolf tries to win a magic axe which can break the spell. Whilst this is happening, Virginia’s cursed hair also leads to her being captured and nearly killed herself by the Huntsman. In the end of the vignette, the Huntsman is knocked unconscious and, despite all his evil, the group decides to pardon him and allow him to live.
So…exactly what morals may we deduce from this children’s film? Should Romani kids be taught that if you allow Gadje amongst your family, feed, and shelter them, they will hurl verbal racism against you before stealing from you? Or should Gadje children be told, “Don’t trust Gypsies because you know those cool birds that fly around, talking and singing in pretty much all Princess movies? Yeah, Gypsies want them brutally tortured to death.”
Thank you, Hallmark Home Entertainment! If your aim was creating kids who need to go to the Museum of Tolerance, you hit the nail right on the head. So much for your particular company having the warmest, fuzziest, most family-oriented reputation in Hollywood…. Upwards of $44,000,000 was spent making this film, averaging out nearly $106 per minute on screen. That equals a cost of this anti-Romani segment being an average of nearly $1,477,218. Was it worth? Was driving home once again the reminder to Romani parents that we have to preview everything that our children watch to safeguard them against racial bigotry really so necessary?
This was directed by David Carson and Herbert Wise, written by Simon Moore, and produced by Brian Eastman, Jane Prowse, and Simon Moore. In all other ways, I would completely recommend this movie. Overall, the filmmakers did an excellent job…but, with this segment, the whole piece unfortunately winds up being like a wedding cake that someone slipped a worm into. The racism was artistically and creatively pointless and polluting.
Final words: definitely not happily ever after.
January 2, 2015
New film review, by Galina Trefil:
Swept from the Sea (1997): Shoved for a Mile in Romani Shoes
Ironically, the film “Swept from the Sea” has no Romani in it, yet it falls into three separate and important Romani rights categories: hate crimes and discrimination perpetrated against Gadje allies to the Romani people, hate crimes and discrimination perpetrated against those wrongly perceived to be Romani, and, lastly, touching ever so briefly on the fact that being physically/ mentally disabled and Romani frequently go together in the minds of discriminators.
Tim Willock’s screenplay, based on the 19th century short story “Amy Foster” by Joseph Conrad, is a visually lush period piece, conveying a true sense of its time without going overboard on frills that make it psychologically less accessible to the modern audience. Intensified by John Barry’s passionate score and grounded by the simple, but detailed, sets and costumes, it tells the story of Yanko, (played by the emotive and intense Vincent Perez,) a Russian immigrant who, with hundreds of others, tries to make it to America for a better life. Only his plans are derailed when he is washed overboard from his ship during a terrible storm…which winds up being a good thing, as the ship sinks, leaving him alone and washed up on the provincial British coast.
Rachel Weisz is the image of big-eyed contemplation and well-restrained body language as she holds her own opposite Perez as “Amy Foster.” Amy, a beautiful, young, sporadically mute servant on a farm, is washing dishes when Yanko, bleeding, covered in mud, with torn clothing, winds up on the other side of the glass. It is love at first site and the two share a silent moment before panic erupts from her employers at the sight of this shaggy, long-haired stranger. He is called “a beast,” “a lunatic,” and “a creature.” And though he is not Romani, as becomes apparent later in the film, we see that this does not matter. He is perceived as Romani. With no English language skills to counter this belief, he winds up being knocked unconscious by Amy’s employer.
Later, Amy kindly washes the blood off him; even, like a good Christian lady, washes the mud off his feet, and gives him bread. Her horrified employer calls her a few names which rank her in the realm of idiot for this decency.
Taken and put on another farm, Yanko is made to work seven days a week without any pay. Continually throughout the film, he labors very hard, doing the work of multiple men, but still suffers their discrimination nonetheless. Lucky for him, even in this backwater area, a world traveller, Dr. Kennedy, (Ian McKellan,) does exist, who realizes that Yanko is a Russian. When Yanko’s true ethnic origin, as well as the fact that he alone survived the immigrant ship sinking, is realized, his penitent masters, (Joss Ackland and Kathy Bates,) give him back-pay for all the months he had worked for them. He is also allowed to only work during daylight hours, now having one day a week off.
Yanko spruces himself up with a new suit, buys Amy a gift, and asks in rapidly-learning, thickly-accented English if she will go for walks with him. Ah, more love story….
Well, actually, it should be more love story, but this pair just cannot catch a break. As Yanko approaches to pick Amy up, her employer calls out: “Look who’s here! A Gyppo!” For good measure, he remarks to a friend of his, “I tell you, Malcolm, that man must be some kind of epileptic!” Though Amy and Yanko would be very happy together, people just cannot resist the urge to trash-talk this foreigner, insisting that he is dangerous, not only in terms of violence, but in his potentially irresistible sex appeal. “All I’m saying,” one argues, “is how these Gypsies do take advantage. He’s cast a glamour over her!” The concept of the Caucasian virgin being sullied by the big, bad Romani menace overtakes some of the local villagers so much that, on seeing Yanko and Amy out on a date, they jump them, beating Yanko until stitches are necessary, and then try to drown him in the ocean. And just in case this perceived-Gypsy were respectfully, honorably courting this girl, it’s still not good enough. He is told that he is not allowed even to marry her; that if he tries to marry her, he will be put “back into the sea.”
They get married anyway, naturally, and have a baby. Now Amy, who all the village knows to be a born-and-bred Gadji, is in the hot seat. When she travels to town, she is mobbed with slurs that she is a “Gyppo” and a “witch,” and that her baby is a bastard with a tail.
Despite it being an uphill battle, Yanko and Amy have done very well for themselves. They own their own acre of land and cottage—no small feat for servants in the 19th century. Yet the anti-Romani, xenophobic discrimination is so intense that Dr. Kennedy advises that they should still pack up and move. Yanko stubbornly insists on staying.
A harsh winter sets in and, ever the dependable worker, Yanko does so much of the work that others won’t do that he winds up with severe pneumonia. Amy runs to her mother, asking if she will help sit with her husband while he is feverish. The mother coldly refuses and, when asked who is at the door, she replies, “Just a Gypsy woman selling curses.” By the time Amy finds someone to help her care for Yanko, they get back only so he can die in her arms…
It is not easy being Romani; living with unending discrimination. However, one aspect of Romani activism that sometimes gets overlooked is that, occasionally, for whatever stupid reason, people have been signaled out as being Romani that aren’t. Sometimes these people were just in the wrong place at the wrong time. Sometimes they deliberately involved themselves in Romani human rights and this resulted in the belief that they must be Romani because most people would not touch this field with a thirty-foot pole. If they are a “Gypsy-lover” though, (someone who defends the community or even just one single Romani person,) they can find themselves instantly endangered and targeted for it. To a non-Romani audience, this film covers both of these facts very well and implants the kind of anti-racism seeds that grows into great, full-formed flowers later.
Artfully directed by Beeban Kidron, this movie merits a few spare handkerchiefs while you watch. Without any racial concepts thrown in, it is irrevocably tragic and beautiful…but, then again, without the racial concepts…would Yanko have died in the end at all? Did he succumb to the pneumonia or the fact that the community shunned and oppressed him and his family? One might argue both, but this Romani woman is more inclined to argue the latter.
January 3, 2015
New film review, by Galina Trefil:
Citizen X (1995): A “Gypsy Boy’s” Confession’s…Somewhat Less Than Decadent
“There are no serial killers in the Soviet state,” the Communist politician declares definitively, confronted with an array of mutilated, viciously blinded, sexually assaulted child corpses. “It is a decadent Western phenomenon.”
Ah, but Andrei Chikatilo, who, between 1978 and 1990, became the real-life murderer of 52 people, most of whom were under the age of seventeen, knew differently. Thankfully, a very small band of Russians did too and were willing to risk prison and possibly even government execution in order to track him down. If ever a movie would have been the P.R. that would’ve set Stalin into a rage, HBO’s “Citizen X” very well might be it…but Stalin and his followers are not the only ones.
Filmed in Hungary in 1995, (possibly to avoid whatever might have happened had director Chris Gerolmo tried daring to film it in the former USSR,) “Citizen X” opens up with a fantastically morose score by Randy Edelman. I’m going to say something about this music twice: fantastic. It sets the mood so effectively that, unlike with so many other serial killer films, where violence is grotesquely transformed into sexy or edgy, there is no possible glorification of gore to be had here. Its respectful somberness pulls out the same emotions from viewers as if they were at the funeral of someone they care about. This is, overall, the way that Gerolmo shot the film. Almost continually, a grey sky hangs overhead, reminding the viewer that there is no break; no escape from the encapsulated tragedy. At the same time, while the body count rises, the outlandish degree of sadism Chikatilo inflicted on his victims is never portrayed on screen. Yes, the film does show a few murders occurring, but never anywhere near the authentic level of horror, (which included severing body parts while children were still alive,) is displayed.
The film’s acting is incredibly superb, showcasing different and much more realistic kinds of masculine heroes than typically find their way onto the silver screen. Stephen Rea poignantly plays Viktor Burakov, a man who starts out as only doing autopsies on the bodies, but due to massive and deliberate Communist authority refusal to properly handle a serial killer investigation, he winds up masterminding the killer’s capture by the end and is promoted to the rank of colonel. He is formidable, brave, but also very much laboring under the pressure of so many falling dead on his watch. A family man who truly internalizes that every dead child could be his own, he repeatedly weeps throughout the film.
Donald Sutherland, the only Communist ally on a panel overseeing the crimes, maintains an excellently aloof, cool-blooded demeanor, only once or twice displaying his secret outrage, both of the murders and the ineptitude of the system which is letting Chikatilo keep killing.
Jeffrey De Munn’s performance as Chikatilo may very well be one of the most believable ones ever done because he is in no way impressive. Instead, his soft-spoken, shameful, wincing, gaze-avoiding, and general aura of pathetic emphasize one factoid that many true crime fans like to overlook: a monster can be emotionally and psychologically impotent, as well as physically. He does not talk a lot, but De Munn’s body language and facial expressions convey the inner turmoil, anger, and deserved lack of confidence shared by serial killers worldwide.
Throughout the film, the search to catch Chikatilo is repeatedly bungled, defying all common logic, not by the main characters, but upon direct orders from Moscow and their lesser minions, (principally the snarling figure of Joss Ackland.) All of these authorities would rather allow Russian children to be butchered than to risk damaging the image of a Utopian society by admitting the crimes are happening. As is typical to such an embarrassing political situation, scapegoats are sought to cover the mess up…and this is where the Romani people unfortunately come into it. Twenty-five minutes into the film, a detective announces, “It’s over! He’s confessed!” Immediately, the scene cuts into the woods, where a handcuffed, very battered, still bleeding Romani man—allegedly mentally handicapped, (but hey, in this area, who knows?)—is being followed by a gang of Russian detectives. He tries to go one way and they grab him by the arms and insist that he go another way, coaching him to show where the murder occurred. Finally, the Romani man comes to a spot where a police car and several more detectives are. “That’s it,” he says, pointing. “That’s where I killed her.” Rewardingly, the detectives pat him on the back. It is in this shot that we see the beaten Romani man is surrounded by no less than a dozen Gadje officers. His confession in a circumstance where denial might have wound up in much more than an immediate vicious beating is thereby not terribly surprising.
Three minutes more and one death later, Viktor Burakov is once more in front of the Communist committee, saying, “I hope this latest murder puts to rest the idea that the Gypsy boy did it.”
“Why?” One barks.
“Because he was in custody when this one was killed.”
“So what? It could have been a gang of which he was only a part.”
“We can’t discount the man as a suspect quite so cavalierly,” another Communist puts in.
“He did confess!” Yet another insists.
Burakov tries to reason with them, saying that the case isn’t solved; that he needs more men to work on it, needs computers to compile the case information, needs to contact the FBI’s task force in Quantico, Virginia, and to publicize the case for victim identification and so that the public can be warned of the dangers. All these options are refused, partly to protect Soviet ideals and mythology, but also because, quite simply, the group already has their necessary token Gypsy to point the finger at.
Years flash forwards and, once again, Burakov is in front of the committee, now pointing out that not one, but six new victims have been found. He says, “All we’ve been able to do is discredit the theory that a gang of retards from the Institute could have been involved…and according to some of the people in this room, we haven’t even been able to do that.”
So what happened to the Romani man, thusly dubbed a “Gypsy boy?” Was he convicted? If so, is he incarcerated somewhere for the mentally insane, as might befit someone derogatorily termed a “retard?” Or, more likely, has the Russian sentence for murder been enforced upon him, which is a shot to the back of the head? We never know because the film never says.
From scapegoating the Roma, the Communist committee moves on to scapegoating and rounding up homosexuals. A young homosexual later hangs himself in a jail cell after being arrested for possibly committing the murders.
As for Chikatilo, he is arrested as well, being found accosting potential victims in a train station whilst carrying a kill kit, (a stabbing knife and rope.) He is released however due to being an upstanding member of, yes, you guessed it, the Communist Party. He gets free range to kill more people because, oh what a shock, his blood test just happened to mysteriously come back negative for a match against the killer’s blood type. (Guess he really cashed in on his membership benefits with that one!)
Unfortunately for him, karma…and Perestroika come at him with a vengeance, annihilating the bigoted Communist committee under which Burakov just barely manages to jump through hoops. He develops a plan to catch Chikatilo and, with yet one more murder being committed, Chikatilo is arrested for a second time.
A Jewish psychiatrist, (though not shown as Jewish in the film,) who wrote a psychological profile on the murderer, calling him “Citizen X,” is brought in. By reading Chikatilo the profile, the daring and career-risking psychiatrist, Dr. Aleksandr Bukhanovsky, (played by Max von Sydow,) manages to single-handedly extract a confession from him, which leads to his conviction, as well as to the bodies of multiple other victims which were previously found.
In a nutshell, this film is incredibly sad because, while some liberties have been taken for theatrical purposes, by and large, it is very true to life. In fact, the two writing credits given to the film are Gerolmo’s and Robert Cullen, the latter of which wrote a book on the case. It is a cold fact that dozens of innocent people died at one man’s hand, with the sickening indifference of politicians only serving as cooperation to his villainy. Under these politicians, the people lived in chipped-paint, broken-windowed poverty for the entirety of their lives, only to be discarded like garbage in the end of it. And those trying to help them did so at tremendous personal risk…. Truly, confronting this level of brutal, long-lasting hypocrisy redefines the term “Red Scare.”
But let’s say that this story was all nothing more than a movie; that Andrei Chikatilo was a purely fictitious character. The fact remains that the Romani man who plays such a small role actually represents a huge problem, well-known to minorities of many different groups. It is all too common and too desired by law enforcement to toss the blame at the nearest Romani person, the nearest Jew, the nearest African-American; the nearest Native. The minority becomes a faceless, nameless entity; an object only there to serve the purpose of the oppressor. This is why he would be referred to by the word “boy” instead of the more dignified, more accurate term “man.” The victim of a racial rush to judgment must be made as small as possible. The conscience of the perpetrators rests easy only if they can relegate the trod-upon race of choice to being so meager that they are discardable and, indeed, even deserve to be treated badly. This film, with some of its jaw-dropping dialogue, showcases that very effectively and it does so in a way that might just leave a few viewers wondering if Romani conviction rates in Europe are actually truly reflective of Romani crime at all….
The only thing I must call a weakness in the script is the fact that we do not know the fate of the Romani suspect. In real life, an individual was executed for one of the early murders Chikatilo committed. Was that the “Gypsy Boy?” It would make sense…but the writer just did not give the audience the three seconds of data to let them be sure….
Predictably, this all-star movie was a sleeper and today is hard to find…. (Films showing Romani innocents being subjected to police brutality would be predictably rare.) Nonetheless, it is very well done and, to those unfamiliar with the treatment that the Romani may expect to be subjected to in many places in Europe by police to this day, I do absolutely recommend giving “Citizen X” two hours of your time.
17 March, 2015
New film review, by Galina Trefil
Brotherhood of the Wolf: A Little Mass Murderer Accusation, N’est-ce Pas?
Between 1764-1767, a killer stalked the French countryside. There is no accurate account of death toll, but it was no less than sixty; possibly as many as three hundred peasants. Most were women and children. There are many theories as to what the infamous Beast of Gévaudan was—a wolf, a hyena, a wolf-dog hybrid; the devil himself…. “Les Pacte du Loups,” (“Brotherhood of the Wolf,”) a 2001 adaption of the tale by director Cristophe Gans, which he co-wrote with Stéphane Cabel, horrifically explores one theory about the case, which ties the nobility to the slaughter.
The film has true artistic design, vibrantly making use of color, particularly bright red as well as icy grey-blue. Beyond merely being decorative, both in sets and costume design, color foreshadows as a tool to help the audience distinguish good from evil. There is well-placed silence in the background, making upscale conversations just that much more uncomfortable, as they break away from a quite lovely soundtrack. Joe LeDuca’s lonely, mystical score employs many popular instruments of the time period, with several pieces written in 18th century style. Fantastically opulent are the sets and props in some cases and, in others, extremely filthy and decrepit, which well conveys the Versailles atmosphere the piece takes place during.
The costumes are very beautiful and properly-researched.... Wait a tic. No, that’s not exactly true. The French characters clothing is well-done, but when it comes to another group of people, I have to admit, I was so thrown off by the costumes that I watched this film several times before having any idea that it was hugely racist against the Roma at all. It was not until, many years later, I saw the word “Gypsies” in one of the film’s soundtrack titles that I blinked and got buried under a big blanket of, “Huh?”
So, even though I liked the film, realizing that the Roma were now major characters in it, I had to watch again with a new analysis as to the film’s conspiracy theory about the Beast of Gévaudan. Given that this story is based in real-life potential mass murder, this winds up being one of the most anti-Roma racist films I’ve yet seen.
Less than five minutes into the film, a female character, listed as La Bavarde, (French for Gossiper,) comes running through the rain with her elderly father, Jean Chastel. Jean Chastel, an actual historical figure, was not Romani, but apparently he has been turned into one for dramatic purposes. You would not guess this to look at him because, Philippe Nahon, like all other actors who are supposedly Roma in this film, is extremely non-Romani in appearance. (Yes, I know that Romani people come in all shades, but would it kill directors to hire actual Roma to play Roma characters once in a while?) At any rate, La Bavarde and Jean Chastel come flying into screen with a gang of soldiers on their tale, who immediately start to viciously beat Chastel. La Bavarde tries to defend her father by, of course, knife-fighting.
Here enters Fronsac, (Samuel Le Bihan,) a heroic taxidermist and his Native American blood-brother shaman, Mani, (Mark Dacascos.) After kicking a bit of bully hind-end, Fronsac inquires to a bleeding foe on the ground of Chastel, “What has he done?”
“He’s a thief!”
“And the girl?”
“His daughter! Bloody witch!”
“I’m a healer,” Chastel protests. “I took care of their horses. They won’t pay me!”
The bloody guy admits this is true, so Fronsac lifts some money off him, tosses it to Chastel, and La Bavarde, with a few kicks and several grunts, departs with her father.
About twenty minutes further on in the movie, a massive hunt has been organized with the basic idea that, hey, if we just kill enough wolves, one of them logically will have to be the Beast. When La Bavarde enters this, she eyes Mani with curious seductiveness, stroking the back of a horse. He smiles at her and she is suddenly violently mauled by two men wearing animal skins, feathers, and what looks close to dreadlocks. These rapey, late-night-TV Sci-Fi-looking Viking dudes, like La Bavarde, are what apparently passes for Roma. And in this particular tribe, it’s perfectly okay for two blokes to just walk up to a Romani lady and start tossing her back and forth between them like a bouncy ball in front of a Gadje crowd. Mani intends to save her, but, like any old-school Romani girl, La Bavarde starts shoving her tongue in and along the flesh of her assailants…who apparently aren’t assailing, after all. She then starts cackling at Mani manically. With the scent of ho in the air, Mani’s ardor cools, leaving him still watching the spectacle with an almost Jerry Springer expression.
We’ll cut back to this episode a few scenes later, when it becomes apparent that Mani is now battling the rapey Roma Vikings. Fantastically, this extensive fight is conducted using well-choreographed martial arts. No, there’s never an explanation as to how Roma or a Mohawk would know martial arts…. I guess some minorities are just so cool that it comes automatically?
Whilst Bruce Lee might be spitting up a little post-mortem blood from this all, Mani defeats the rapey guys, only for a few Romani women to decide to join in…both wearing tight pants, feathers in their hair, and, yes, again with the animal skins. (Yeah…. Hey, we all know our grandmas dressed just like that in their youth, right?) The two ladies, for apparent sport, now try to beat Mani up with more gymnastics and martial arts, neither of which work well for them.
As is the true Roma way, Mani then finds himself surrounded by a whole swarm of wicked Gypsies who, knowing he cannot be defeated in hand-to-hand combat, break out massive claw-like weapons that look like something off the cover of a Wolverine comic. He still kicks their butt because, well, either he is just that cool…or these Gypsies really can’t finish a fight worth a darn.
It ends when Jean-Francois, a blatantly-evil nobleman, shoots one of the Gypsies…which is guaranteed to bring a smile to the audience. (Random minority bad guy is used for target practice. Woohoo!)
Chastel then drags La Bavarde by the back of her neck to Jean-Francois and Fronsac, throws her down on the ground, and roars, “My lords, my daughter is the cause of all this. Here she is. Punish her as you see fit!”
Yeah…because Romani fathers were known for shoving their beautiful, young daughters down to the physical mercy of aristocratic Gadje men. Seriously, did any fathers from any race do that?
La Bavarde is apparently more worried about their intentions than her father, so she promptly has a grand mal seizure. Fronsac straddles himself on top of her, holds her flat on her back, wipes the foam away from her mouth, and shoves the hilt of his knife between her teeth. Chastel meanwhile cries out, “She’s ill! She’s sick! She’s not possessed.”
“Keep her from swallowing her tongue. She’ll suffocate,” Fronsac advises him.
“Naturalist, philosopher, and even healer…. Bravo,” says Jean-Francois at the end.
Epileptics, like Roma, have a unique and unenviable pedestal in the horror hall of fame. I guess this movie is trying to hit two bad clichés with one stone by combining them. This is not an appealing concept for any genuine epileptic Romanies, who would view this is a particularly gruesome scene because it teaches Gadje men that it’s okay to sit on an unconscious Romani girl, hold her down, and do it at time when this could make her choke to death on her own foam/ vomit.
La Bavarde appears some time later in the film, when two French children have been attacked by the Beast, apparently with her just hanging out in the snow to watch.
Soon afterwards, we discover a whole dog-fighting den run by the Gypsies. Dogs whimper pitifully as these animal-abusers essentially feed them to the Beast. Mani later fights and chases the Beast back to this subterranean lair, then winds up being tortured to death by the mob of sadistic, grunts-only Gypsies, who have an immediate celebration. As La Bavarde dances on a table while Gypsy men gleefully throw knives at her and lesbian Roma women make out in the background.
The righteously-outraged Fronsac catches them, sets fire to their horse barn, and goes on a typical one-Gadjo-against-the-Roma world rampage, killing any Gypsy he can catch. And none of them, of course, have the oomph to take on one ticked off blond hero on a mission.
In the end, we discover that a French nobility cult is the main culprit, led by Jean-Francois, and the Gypsies are the loyal henchmen. The film shows the benefits to the Beast cult for the nobility, but beyond the concept that killing White people is the main Romani objective, it certainly doesn’t show any reason why Roma would want to be involved. Are the nobility paying them? Giving them protection in some way? Given that they’re being beaten and shot whilst dressed in rags throughout the film, it certainly doesn’t appear so.
When the final showdown comes, the Gypsies fight Fronsac like they are the nobility’s cannon fodder. To show how much of a badass he is, Fronsac scalps one of them and throws his trophy at the nobility’s feet. Soon the good king’s soldiers come along and, (yay!,) start shooting even more Gypsies.
Fleeing, La Bavarde has a spiked fan shoved in her throat by a blood-licking, Italian courtesan, (Monica Bellucci.)
When Fronsac comes to kill the wounded Beast, Jean Chastel sits comforting it. Chastel explains the Beast’s entire history, showing that the Roma could have stopped the entire mass murder before it ever took place…and chose not to.
You would think this would be offensive to viewers because, after all, we’re talking about real victims in Gévaudan who died brutally; people whose descendants still recall the stories of what happened. Even from a “we’ll make a horror film” perspective, there are artistic directions to take beyond the well-worn cliché of blaming a still-currently-persecuted-in-France minority.
History was frightening enough in the case of the Beast of Gévaudan. It didn’t need to be made worse by encouraging Gadje to think that Roma, as a whole, contribute to mass murder…particularly when, for hundreds of years all throughout Europe, we have been the ones who are on the receiving end of that dread occurrence.
And, yet, as this movie alone demonstrates, Roma depicted as murderers can gross over $70,000,000 worldwide. Whereas there is simply no money to be made in showcasing the frequent reality of Roma being targets. And, in film, money, not ethics, is always the bottom line.
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