Pantheon Int'l #51: MOLDOVA - 'The Gypsy Camp Vanishes Into the Heavens'

Pantheon Int'l is a daily blogging project; I'll be watching a movie from a different country every day for the next four months and writing about it.   Click here for a complete list with links to each article.

Rabor ukhodit v nebo, d. Emil Loteanu, Molova, 1976, 95min., Musical Drama

"Freedom is the headiest wine of of all."

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The title of this film has frequently been translated poorly.  It is found on DVD these days under the title Gypsies Are Found Near Heaven, and was at one point called Queen of the Gypsies for simplicity.  The Gypsy Camp Vanishes Into the Blue is a closer translation that you sometimes see, but it is my understanding that "the blue" is referring to a word that can mean both sky and heaven.  Therefore, The Gypsy Camp Vanishes Into the Heavens is probably the closest translation.

Moldova for centuries has been controlled by various other powers: neighboring Romania, the Russian Empire and, of course, the Soviet Union.  Moldavian director Emil Loteanu wanted to make this film - based on a short story by Russian author Maxim Gorky - in the Carpathian Mountains of Moldova, and unable to get local funding it became his first film financed by Mosfilm, the oldest and largest film studio in Russia.  Accordingly, the film looks and feels like big-budget spectacle.  It was shot on 70mm on location, and although the colors aren't as vibrant as Hollywood Technicolor (I'm not sure how much of this is due to the quality of the original film stock, and how much is due to surviving prints of the film being faded and in need of restoration), it still feels akin to a Cinemascope epic and must look incredible on the big screen.

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The result is a rousing work of populist entertainment.  At its heart is a lush and sensual romantic tragedy.  it incorporates musical numbers, although it doesn't feel like a musical; the musical numbers can be seen as a necessary part of establishing Gypsy culture, or as a character trait since only the Gypsies sing.  It also at times feels like a western.  Not just because it is set in the early 20th century when wagons are the mode of transportation, horses are targets for thieves, and the untamed forests and hills of Moldova feel like a greener version of the American frontier.  The widescreen cinematography, the free-roaming spirit of the Romani, and a creative score that at times sounds like Ennio Morricone - with a lush violin section, and unusual orchestration choices like whistled melodies - all contribute to a sense that this was a conscious choice.  Westerns were popular in the Soviet Union, too.

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Loteanu's goal seems to have been to one-up various gypsy-themed movies that had come out of Hollywood and Europe.  Although he succeeds tremendously, he does not escape some stereotypes.  Our main protagonist, Zobar, begins the movie as a horse thief.  After he is shot while escaping some Austro-Hungarian "cavalry", he meets his romantic interest, Rada, who cures him using her Gypsy magic.  (She goes on to read people's fortunes a few times throughout the film.)  Although attracted to him, Zobar will have to work really hard to "tame" Rada and get her to marry him.  Freedom is so innate to the nature of Gypsies in this interpretation, that a married woman seems comparable to a bridled horse.

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What Loteanu perpetuates in obvious mythologizing of Romani culture, he makes up for with great touches of authenticity.  Although the two leads are Moldavian, the majority of the extras are actual Romani, the film's gypsy camp is an actual Romani camp, and the costumes were copied from authentic clothing.  The composer was instructed to record real Romani folk songs and simply orchestrate them for the musical numbers.  According to the composer, the Romani who worked with the production were skeptical that this film by outsiders would capture their spirit, and probably felt they were going to be exploited, but when they heard their music in the film with brilliant orchestral accompaniment they were impressed and adopted the film as something they could finally call their own.  The scant other sources of information online seem to at least confirm that when Romani saw this movie in theatres they were roused to sing along loudly with the songs they knew so well.

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It doesn't seem historically accurate that there were members of the Austro-Hungarian empire occupying Moldova in this period, just before WWI.  Maybe this was in the Maxim Gorky story, or maybe this was a way to satisfy Soviet censors.  Equating the Gypsy protagonists to the worker class seems difficult, but a struggle against rich Imperialists (especially Germanic ones) seems to have satisfied qualms.  It also helps to remove some of the negative implications of Zabor's horse rustling days, by turning him into a wealth-redistributing Robin Hood.

I was pleasantly surprised by how much I engaged with this film.  The performances are very good, particularly Svetlana Toma's Rada, and some of the Romani extras display an infectious amount of joy and energy in the sequences where they dance and sing directly to the audience.  But what really jumped out at me was the photography.  Hollywood 70mm epics are characterised by a static, carefully-composed image that uses its size to stage wideshots of multiple actors.  Here, the camera prefers to stay in close to its actors, glides around the scenes with an almost hand-held wildness (although it is almost certainly a mixture of carefully choreographed dolly and crane shots).  It adds a level of energy and immediacy that is usually lacking from the aforementioned Hollywood epics, and is perfectly suited for this portrait of a vibrant and endangered culture.  There is also a refreshing, but perhaps too frequent, use of lens flares to denote a magical aura around Rada.

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The tragic ending feels incredibly subversive of everything that came before.  Although the last shots of the film reiterate a poetic romanticism that you would expect from this sort of Romeo-and-Juliet tragedy, there is a brief shift in tone to a sort of sudden interjection (and realization) of reality.  And I think this moment portrays the title's sentiment, that this culture - by reason of its very nature and the changing times - is doomed to vanish into the blue.

An out-of-print DVD of "Gypsies are Found Near Heaven" can still be obtained.