Most coming-of-age films — whether set in Sweden or Brooklyn — reinforce the universality of their young protagonists’ experiences. Not Time of the Gypsies. Perhan (Davor Dujmovic), the hero, is a Yugoslavian Gypsy teenager who wants nothing more than to marry his sweetheart, a village girl whose toothy, sensual stare is-to him-sheer beauty. By the end, though, he is drawn into thievery, pimping, and vengeful murder.
Directed by Emir Kusturica (When Father Was Away on Business), the movie outlines a culture so drenched in indolence and petty treachery that most filmmakers would have played it for comedy. The shrill, grabby Gypsies here are like a hyped-up version of a stereotypically raucous Italian or Jewish family, with everyone yelling at each other in order to have a simple conversation. Kusturica shows us how the day-to-day Gypsy hysteria is rooted in anxieties about money: Who has it, and who can hold on to it?
Kusturica’s turbulent style risks in-your-face oppressiveness. Despite a few funny, lilting moments (Perhan, we learn, has genuine magical powers), Time of the Gypsies spends much of its 2 hours and 20 minutes rubbing our noses in the cruelty of the life it depicts.
Yet there’s a great subject here: the way Perhan, with his golden sensual dreams, has to corrupt himself to become a man. Dujmovic has some of the grave-faced insolence of the young Bob Dylan, and he gives a performance of smoldering purity. Anchored by his presence, Time of the Gypsies turns into a kind of penny-ante Godfather, with Perhan, who uses telekinesis to slay his enemies, emerging as a magical-realist Michael Corleone. It’s a harsh, slipshod, sometimes memorable movie. B+