'Geronimo': Cannes Review

GERONIMO Cannes Film Still - H 2014
Courtesy of Festival de Cannes

GERONIMO Cannes Film Still - H 2014

Sharply drawn characters full of intensity, passion and energy burn out in a story without an ending

Flamenco meets "West Side Story" in Tony Gatlif's high-energy face-off between Spanish and Turkish communities in a French housing project

In his almost 40-year career, writer-director Tony Gatlif has taken an admirable stand for the underdogs in French society, particularly Gypsies (Latcho Drom) and Africans (Time for Outrage!)  Geronimo returns to the winning gambit of contemporary ethnic music and dance he does so well, and also to his typical problem of a weak screenplay.

If this drama about a woman who works with kids in a French housing project was only able to maintain the energy and excitement of its acrobatic, showstopping hip-hop numbers, it could reach out to just the kind of angry, disenfranchised people it depicts. Instead, the story peters out and becomes inconsequential in the final scenes. It even fails to offer a clear-cut ending to its tale of young lovers from different backgrounds and the courageous young social worker, played by a wonderfully live-wire Celine Sallette, who shields them. Her nervous energy should aid in domestic release, but beyond French borders the film will probably find its audiences at festivals.

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"Geronimo" is an oddly apt nickname given to the 30-ish Sallette character by the kids --Gypsies, Turks, Africans -- she is keeping a close eye on, during one hot August in the south of France. She is called a "monitor" in the film, but her supervision is full of tough love and compassion. Having been in a reformatory herself, she walks their walk and talks their talk, taking no sass from the thieving, wayward but still redeemable bunch. Her authority extends to making them surrender all the booty they've shoplifted from a supermarket. These are tough little customers, but she's playing their game, and they respect her.

To a lesser extent, so do the 20-something punks in silk shirts who parade their break dancing skills on the street. These numbers are warm-ups to two heady extended dance sequences excitingly shot by Gatlif and director of photography Patrick Ghiringhelli that are a joy to behold.

The first, filmed at night on a deserted street, shows an angry Turkish clan menacing a group of joyfully dancing Spaniards. The Gypsies symbolically repulse the Turks' leader through the hypnotic spell of a girl aggressively dancing flamenco.  Her ferociously clicking heels make him drop to the ground, overcome by a seizure. In another scene, the gangs square off in a kind of disco space. When the Turks burst in, flamenco hip-hop mixes with Turkish music. The sound that prevails depends on which clan is performing, during an electrifying dance contest beautifully lensed in a single seven-minute shot.

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Following these highlights, the story is something of a let-down. The neighborhood is in an uproar after 16-year-old Nil Terzi (Nailia Harzoune) leaves her Turkish bridegroom at the altar and runs into the arms of the Gypsy Lucky Molina (David Murgia). They are madly in love, as happy as kids and not much smarter. Nil's four brothers, lead by the mad dog Fazil (Rachid Yous, intense but mono-expressive), can’t accept this insult to family honor and are out for blood, and if it wasn't for the help of Lucky's family and Geronimo, who hide them, they'd be dead meat. Gatlif makes the point that the older generation is willing to abide by French rules and let the couple go, but the hotheaded youngsters use "tradition" as a way to churn up violence and racial hatred.

So far so good, but the screenplay can invent no interesting denouement for this tale of star-crossed love with loud echoes of West Side Story. The last sequences, shot against the colorful background of an abandoned factory decorated with graffiti, make any lingering compassion for the characters disappear.

Production companies: Princes Production, Rhone-Alpes Cinema, Princes Films

Cast: Celine Sallette, Rachid Yous, David Murgia, Nailia Harzoune, Vincent Heneine, Adrien Ruiz, Aksel Ustun, Tim Seyfi, Sergi Lopez
Director: Tony Gatlif
Screenwriter: Tony Gatlif
Executive producer: Delphine Mantoulet
Director of photography: Patrick Ghiringhelli
Production designer: Tony Gatlif
Costume designer: Catherine Rigault
Editor: Monique Dartonne
Music: Monique Dartonne, Valentin Dahmani
Sales: Les Films du Losange

No rating, 104 minutes