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My parents, whose tastes in movies are a considerable distance above the mainstream, still didn't care for this, one of my favorite movies. Perhaps it was simply too foreign, or, more likely, the lack of story line made them feel that their 2 hours of watching were wasted. So I warn you now: do not expect a story. With that in mind, you should be able to get a great deal out of this movie.
Latcho Drom (Safe Journey) depicts the Rom people, pejoratively known as "gypsies," a race that is scattered across the globe with concentrations in India, Egypt, Turkey, Romania, Hungary, Slovakia, and Spain. Perhaps the English word roam comes from the Rom. Their skin color ranges as far as their geography from nut-brown to caramel to pale. The main focus of this film is Rom music, again wider ranging that perhaps any other culture's.
We open on a desert in India, with a traveling caravan. Actually, this opening follows a brief spoken introduction, the only hint that this is a contemporary movie, not a period piece. As the caravan moves, a deeply tanned boy with tousled hair sings a solo while clacking some kind of large castanets or claves. He sings about crossing the desert in India to be married far from his family. His voice is plaintive but clear and strong.
Now they reach a spring. We see and hear the rushing water and watch the travelers drink their fill and wash the dust from their skin. The camels and donkeys and dogs all drink, and then we see colorfully dressed women dancing a bridal celebration. The groom's song that follows overflows with poetry, it seems, from The Song of Songs.
The music is wildly passionate, infused with tablas and sitars. The words are also passionate--and the subtitles, unneeded. You get a flavor of what is being said just hearing the voice that carries the song above the fast-played instruments into the desert's night sky. Too, all of the imagery is rich in this film: bright colors, beautiful faces, evocative landscapes. As viewers of a movie, we are protected from the culture shock that would otherwise overwhelm most of us. I know I'd feel completely off my grounding in this environment, though probably also swept up in the beauty and romance of the scene. But as a watcher, I am comfortable sitting on pillows somewhere in the U.S., feeling a craving for fresh halvah.
We go next to Egypt where a large group sings together in a small room. A weird man (probably even in his own culture) sings an excited plea to a woman named Dora. Reedy horns that may evoke fakirs with snakes in woven baskets underscore his tenor wailing. That and the rhythmic clapping of this roomful of Rom.
In Romania (clearly a related name) we see a very old man under a tree. In the strangest song in the lot, he plays a violin and croaks out a tune about a criminal. Even without subtitles, I think I could have imagined what this song is about. In a good example of the Rom people's adaptive skill, the old man plays the violin in a way I've never seen it played anywhere else. A string is tied to one of the fiddle strings. By stroking this dangling string between his thumb and forefinger, he creates a creaky resonance in the sounding box underneath tiptoeing pizzicato. It's highly eerie and completely riveting.
The next scene takes place on a train in Hungary. A small girl sings about the world's hatred of the Rom. Even this little one has a voice that is clear and true. I recognize that Gatlif didn't need to recruit the first little girl that walked in who said she was Rom, but I am still impressed with the range of vocalists and musicians and their tremendous musical skills.
Next, an old woman sings about Auschwitz. We don't need the subtitles to know that her song is one of deep and old sorrow. Again, each of these songs is linked by passionate emotion. No matter what the instrumentation or language, the singer and the players overflow with total feeling.
Several purely instrumental songs happen. We see an icy train station where a little Caucasian boy dances to a Rom choir all singing a very happy sounding song. The little boy bounces up and down while his mother sits on a bench watching. This setting is antithetical to the opening desert scene. It's also interesting that this cheery wordless song (that's not without la-la-la's) follows perhaps the saddest song in the film: about the Rom lives lost in the holocaust.
Dancing! Playing! Clapping! All of this is done so whole-heartedly no matter where the invisible camera travels. We see a street jam with accordion, dulcimer, violin, etc. We see a club gig with guitars and basses and singing. We get to see a large group dancing a flamenco-like twirl in the streets of Spain.
At last the film ends on a hill overlooking a city in Spain. A lone woman sings: "You: it is a stork that placed you on this earth. Me? A black bird threw me upon it." She asks why the other races of Europe and Asia have been so cruel to the Rom people throughout history. This is an angry song, recounting the wrongs done by Franco and Hitler. It's a powerful move to end on anger rather than the jollity or despair. "Anger" as Johnny Rotten said, "is an energy." It bodes well that this people has not succumbed to despair and that they continue to live as they wish to live, thriving as best they can under poverty and in a cruel world. We understand that it is music that allows them to perceive the beauty in life that surrounds us all. Music is a gateway for humans to enter into our emotions for all the wisdom and purification they offer.
In sum, I can't recommend a better music video or a better film for visual delight. I strongly recommend it to people who have traveled extensively and even more to people who have not. I remain fascinated even after several viewings. I hope you will enjoy it, but remember: it isn't a story as you think of a story. The story here is one of an entire people: a rich and hard past, a struggling but joyous present, and a hopeful future.
©1999 by Randy Shandis Enterprises. All rights happily reserved.