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Thursday March 27, 2008

Gypsy punk opera extravaganza by Serbian filmmaker Kusturica hits Paris stage

MYT 8:37:55 PM

PARIS (AP) - Take a 10-piece Gypsy band, add a hefty dose of opera, a dash of punk rock, a unicyclist and a flock of geese and simmer into a heady concoction, taking care to keep the lid on. 

That's the basic recipe for "Le Temps de Gitans'' (The Time of the Gypsies), celebrated Serbian director Emir Kusturica's operatic adaptation of his 1988 movie of the same name about love, betrayal and petty crime in an Eastern European gypsy community. 

The show, playing at Paris's Palais de Congres, is an exercise in controlled chaos, which continually threatens to boil over into full-fledged anarchy. 

"It's a combination of silent cinema, an opera made by Visconti, filled with a Sex Pistols experience,'' said Kusturica, referring to the late Italian neo-realist director Luchino Visconti and the 1970's British punk band. 

Staging "Le Temps des Gitans'' was "like making a big circus,'' Kusturica said in an interview with The Associated Press in Paris. 

Acrobats, jugglers and a unicyclist jostle with the show's dozens of singers, who include a pair of dwarfs. Nearly all nonprofessionals, they bring a palpable freshness to their roles, belting out the libretto with gusto. All songs are in the Gypsy language of Romani, with French subtitles. 

The music veers between the accordion-driven tunes of traditional Gypsy music and harder rock rhythms, played by The Garbage Serbian Philarmonica, a classical orchestra, and Gypsy techno-rock group The No Smoking Orchestra. Kusturica has played the guitar for the group since 1986, while his 30-year-old son, Stribor, is its drummer. 

The opera tells the tale of Perhan, a Gypsy teen who leaves his village for Milan, where he becomes a crime boss. It's a streamlined reworking of the plot of the marathon movie, "Dom Za Vesanje'' (The Time of the Gypsies), for which Kusturica won best director at the 1988 Cannes Film Festival. 

"It's a romantic story that I think has not lost its relevance'' in the 20 years since the film's release, he said. Its themes, "the confrontation between two worlds: Eastern, Western, poor, rich,'' are more current now than ever, he said. 

For Kusturica, the main challenge in translating the movie into a theater production was the stage itself. 

"I was amazed by this huge space,'' he said. "The biggest difficulty was how to fill the huge space, (but) you have to, otherwise you're going to get swallowed by the big hole you have in front of you.'' 

Elaborate sets and ingenious prop pieces resolved the problem. The village is a collection of ramshackle houses, their roofs - which hang suspended in mid-air from cables - giving an impression of fragility. 

Tractors, trailers and a glass-encased Pope-mobile putt-putt around the village, and a gigantic turkey on wheels rolls in for no apparent reason. 

Upstage, rolling hills create depth of field and are also a metaphor for the gap between Eastern and Western Europe: When Perhan sets off for Italy, the hills part down the middle, whisking him westward and pulling the remaining villagers to the east. 

Audiences know he's arrived in Milan when a scrim painted with the facade of the city's emblematic Gothic cathedral, the Duomo, descends from the rafters. 

Out of the 13th century cathedral pop a pair of can-canning clergymen and two dancing nuns whose moves look like they were inspired by the gaggle of panicked geese that scuttle around the stage. 

To add to the hodgepodge, extracts from movies like Martin Scorsese's "Taxi Driver'' and footage of Argentine soccer great Diego Maradona - the subject of Kusturica's forthcoming film - are projected onto scrims during scene changes. 

"The Time of the Gypsies'' steers clear of politics, giving a wide berth to the kinds of polemic that plagued his award-winning 1995 movie, "Underground.'' A chronicle of Yugoslav history from World War II through the 1992-1995 ethnic war, "Underground'' was widely criticized for being pro-Serbian. 

Kusturica was born into a Bosnian Muslim family in Sarajevo but left before the outbreak of Bosnia's ethnic conflicts and took up self-imposed exile in neighboring Serbia. He has become a prominent voice of Serbian nationalism and recently spoken out against Kosovo's Western-backed declaration of independence from Serbia on Feb. 17. 

He called Kosovo's declared secession "brutal, awful'' and warned that it "is going to come back as a boomerang in the future.'' 

"There is a little bit of poison metal that is poisoning your body,'' he said. "This is going to be Kosovo.'' 

Kusturica said there are plans to take "The Time of the Gypsies'' - playing at the Palais des Congres through March 30 - on the road, to Serbia and Greece in September, and then farther afield, to countries in Latin America and Asia. In addition to his next project - a movie about the Mexican Revolutionary folk hero Pancho Villa _ Kusturica said he's also planning to make an opera of another of his movies, 1998's "Black Cat, White Cat.'' 

"My enthusiasm is never gone,'' said Kusturica, who described his work as "an attempt to put together the Marx Brothers and Shakespeare, which is not possible.'' Still, he said that even when his work breaks traditional artistic rules, "people go see it and they like to see it.''-AP


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