Antonio CanalesFernando Guerrero RebolloJuan Luis CorrientesAntonio Dechent
Medium: film
Year: 2000
Writer/director: Tony Gatlif
Language: Spanish, French [apparently], Japanese [just one song]
Country: Spain
Actor: Antonio Canales, Orestes Villasan Rodriguez, Antonio Dechent, Bobote, Juan Luis Corrientes, Fernando Guerrero Rebollo, Francisco Chavero Rios, Jose Ramirez 'El Cheli', Juan-Luis Barrios Llorente, Jesus Maria Ventura, Maria Faraco, El Moro, Manuel Vega Salazar
Format: 90 minutes
Website category: Foreign language
Review date: 30 March 2011
Vengo is a Spanish film about two gypsy families of criminals who hate each other, but more importantly it's about music. Lots of music. For a while I was wondering if it was a documentary about folk music, since the first eight minutes just have a bunch of Spanish people singing and playing. That entire section has no dialogue and no story. It's just guitars, violins, tambourines, the human voice and a man using a wine glass as a musical instrument.
Eight minutes is an eternity in a film. Fortunately the music's good and so we're happy to listen to it, but that's only the beginning. They never stop the plot again for that long all at once, but even so the other musical interludes put together probably get as much screentime again. This is a big deal. We're talking about fifteen minutes that's just music. It pushes the film into an unusual direction, making it feel like a documentary about Spanish gypsies rather than a regular movie. It's great stuff though, full of personality. Some of these singers are remarkable, such as the one who seemed on the edge of hysteria, while there might also be hot women dancing.
To my surprise there's even a song in Japanese, perhaps because Nikkatsu was one of the production companies backing this film. That's one florid singer they dug up for it too. Bet it's been a while since she was among Japanese people instead of Spaniards.
So there's lots of music. Everyone really cares about it. Bodyguards will also moonlight as the managers for some musician or other, doing cover design and so on. A dead girl happened to have recorded a (rather good) CD. If you acquire a lot of money, you hire lots of musicians and have an insane party. However other important elements of this film include gorgeous Mediterranean weather and picking fruit off the trees. Looks like a good life. It's making Spain look downright seductive. Furthermore no one is ever seen even to consider doing a day's work, although we're told at one point that the Caravaces family owns a casino. If these people aren't criminals, then I presume they've simply inherited massive wealth and it's their idea of a status symbol to employ men to sit in cars all day and look menacing.
That's most of the movie. Seriously. You could argue that there's a bit of a plot, but it feels more like a framework on which to hang a hot-blooded Mediterranean vibe. I'm not saying that's a bad thing, though. The film is what it is. It's successful at being itself.
Once you've accepted that, the regular movie elements are fine. They do their job. In another movie they'd feel thin, but Vengo is something you drink in rather than watch conventionally. Our protagonist, Antonio Canales, recently lost his daughter, Repa. That opening eight-minute sequence would appear to have been an unusually vivid funeral. Shortly afterwards we see "Repa, you will be avenged" written in big blood-red letters on one of those white Mediterranean walls. Ah, a blood feud. It would seem that one reason for all the white walls is that that makes it easy to whitewash over this week's declarations of murderous vengeance. Anyway, not long after that, "Sandro, you will be avenged" has been written on one of Canales's walls in return and you can see that this is not going to end well. The Caravaces family were fond of their Sandro, it seems, and they're no more willing to let it drop than Canales had been.
In other words, these people are both gangsters and idiots. However they're also likeable, being determined to enjoy life to the utmost while listening to lots of music. Canales has a mentally handicapped nephew, for instance, who couldn't have asked for a more generous uncle. This nephew is played by one Orestes Villasan Rodriguez, who's never acted in anything else and I'd guess in real life has his character's condition. He's very, very convincing. Seems like a nice guy, mind you.
This is a film whose fans get poetical about it. Browse the imdb reader reviews and you'll find phrases like "incredibly deep with so much true emotion", "like most really great art" and "if you are open, this movie will touch your soul". Tony Gatlif, a gypsy born in Algeria, wrote, directed, produced and did the music for this film, although despite also being an actor he didn't act in it. He'd also made other films about European gypsies, such as Latjo Drom (a documentary) and Gadjo Dilo. His own description of this one is as "a call, a song, a hymn to life, to love, to mourning, to blood money. A hymn to the Mediterranean spirit." That looks like a pretty good summary to me.
Would I recommend this film? I don't know. It's an experience. It feels true to itself, which is crucial, and it's full of music and passion. Look at the scene where Canales gets so angry that he stabs himself repeatedly in the arm, for instance. I think I quite liked it.