|Zingarina (Asia Argento) travels to Romania to search for the father of her unborn child.|
The French-Algerian director Tony Gatlif is fascinated with the mysteries of points east - with the music and culture of the Roma, more commonly known as gypsies. From his breakthrough documentary, 1993's "Latcho Drom" to 2004's "Exiles," Gatlif has built a filmography that celebrates the intensely pleasurable music and brooding defiance of a misunderstood subculture.
In "Transylvania," he plonks down bad-girl actress Asia Argento in the midst of his usual obsessions, remaking his Roma-centric cinema into a fairly wonderful romantic tantrum. Like other Gatlif movies, this one gets drunk on mood and rhythm and ravaged faces while letting plot fend for itself. You probably won't mind.
Argento plays Zingarina, an Italian woman who arrives in the title region of Romania seeking Milan, the musician father of her unborn child. (He's played by Marco Castoldi, a Euro-rock star who's the father of Argento's daughter in real life.) Zingarina is accompanied by a gal pal (Amira Casar) and a translator (Alexandra Beaujard), the latter crooning Balkan melodies while playing the accordion in the back seat. "We're all one family in Romania," someone tells Zingarina, and musically speaking he has a point: the entire country seems to be singing.
Argento's a sight with her low-cut black blouses, tattoos, and angry mane of hair, and after Zingarina finds Milan and is brutally dumped by him, she comes apart with self-destructive fervor. If you've seen the actress before, you know she's capable of anything, and a scene in which the heroine dances to a band in a late-night bar, smashing plates and stripping off her shirt, isn't easily forgotten.
Gatlif's crew appears to have arrived in Transylvania during a national folk festival, and the movie's early scenes place this spoiled, passionate woman against a riotous backdrop of ethnic finery and harmonies. The music is transporting, the actual sense of time fluid. Past, present, and future exist side by side.
Eventually Zingarina hooks up with an itinerant scrap dealer named Tchangalo - she's another piece of junk he picks up - and the two embark on an argumentative road romance into the deep countryside. He's played by the great, scrofulous German-Turkish actor Birol Ünel, and if you saw 2004's "Head-On," you know his unwashed boho charisma (and if not, think Marcello Mastroianni crossed with early Tom Waits).
Zingarina's a high maintenance pain in the rear, and the frustrated Tchangalo takes her to a local church for an exorcism, after which she dons local garb and tries to lose herself in the Roma culture. No one's fooled. "I'm 75 years old and I've never seen a woman fight like a man," says an astonished elderly villager the couple briefly travels with.
"Transylvania" frequently treads the edges of the ridiculous, especially when Zingarina and Tchangalo converse floridly in English, their sole common language. But it also has the courage to be ridiculous, as when the couple spontaneously make love on the hood of his car only to be scared off by a roving bear. Gatlif and his cinematographer, Celine Bozon, succeed at creating an otherworldly culture that moves into a timeless and purifying winter landscape.
Some real Romanian audiences have apparently taken deep offense at this movie and want you to know their country is nothing like the backward folk-nation Gatlif imagines. Fine, duly noted - the Transylvania of "Transylvania" is a Transylvania of the mind. In Gatlif's hands, it still has the power to root Western Europe and sway it to a forgotten beat.