Admirers of director Tony Gatlif's enchanting look at Romany life and music, Latcho Drom, are now in for a treat of another sort. With Mondo, the world's leading (perhaps only) Algerian-Gypsy-French filmmaker has crafted a poetic fable about friendship, human displacement and belonging that strikes all kinds of chords in the age of ethnic cleansing in Bosnia, ongoing terrorism in the Middle East and racial apprehension in America.
Adapted from a story by French cult novelist Jean-Marie G. Le Clezio, it's an allegory about a homeless, seemingly rootless boy who materializes one day on the streets of Nice, in the south of France, exerts a mysterious influence on everyone he meets, then vanishes as suddenly as he appeared. Little Mondo, played by an eleven-year-old Gypsy boy named Ovidiu Balan, sleeps in gardens and caves, studies cats and bugs, cadges slices of bread from the kindly baker and stays a step ahead of les flics. In his innocence and disturbance, he is no less an emotional force than the grief-stricken four-year-old in another recent French-language film, Ponette, or the Russian boy who wins the heart of a self-absorbed Czech musician in Kolya. It's been a very good year for European movie kids.
Gatlif's little gem, just eighty minutes long, doesn't turn on plot in the traditional sense, and the relationships the boy strikes up have an elusive, dreamlike air--as if they were painted into the film by a Dali or a De Chirico. Mondo meets a deft, hypnotic magician (Philippe Petit) who takes him on as an assistant. He shares a park bench with an old Scottish hobo (Jerry Smith) who keeps a pair of doves in a ventilated suitcase. The boy dreams of freedom and the Red Sea with a fisherman (Maurice Maurin) who teaches him the alphabet by writing on stones. He's taken in by an old woman (Pierette Fesch) who tells him she is both Jewish and Vietnamese--origins as clouded as his own--and that she, too, is "a traveler."
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Smiling, Mondo asks strange grownups: "Do you want to adopt me?" In the movie's most haunting sequence, he discovers dozens of oranges afloat in the green Mediterranean, each inscribed with an indecipherable Arabic message. Cries for help? Pleas for understanding from across the sea?
Make what you will of Gatlif and Le Clezio's message, but this beautiful and allusive film turns out to be not so mystifying after all. In its tousled waif--in tune with nature, cut loose from his tribe and named for the world itself--it's not difficult to imagine the troubled spirit of our time.
Screenplay by Tony Gatlif, from a story by Jean-Marie G. Le Clezio. Directed by Tony Gatlif. With Ovidiu Balan, Pierette Fesch, Jerry Smith and Philippe Petit.