'Petitet': Film Review

Courtesy of Lastor Media
As bouncy and engaging as its protagonist.

A larger-than-life Barcelona gypsy struggles to make his mother’s musical dream come true in this documentary from Carles Bosch.

"When a gypsy says he'll do something, then he'll do it," promises Joan Ximenez, aka Petitet, at the start of this warm-hearted, feel-good celebration of one man's attempt to bring the rhythms of gypsy rumba to one of the world’s great opera houses. This record of Petitet’s struggles to make the dream happen while suffering from illness is a little stagey, a little sentimental and a little too long, but these are minor complaints about a project that succeeds in putting a big, slightly teary smile on the face of even the most jaundiced viewer.

The deathbed promise made was to Petitet’s mother, and there are indeed a couple of visits to the cemetery in her honor — but the story would have worked almost as well without it. Early scenes supply a little historical context about Catalan rumba and the particular street in the city's Raval neighborhood, a lot less lively now than it once was, where Petitet and his family grew up — his father sang with Peret, the greatest of the Catalan rumba singers.

Petitet's promise is basically to bring Catalan rumba — a popular, non-elitist form — to Barcelona’s Liceu, a world-renowned opera house, and to complicate matters further, he wants it to be with a full symphony orchestra. (Underlying this ambition is the desire, not addressed directly by the film, for mainstream acceptance of an oppressed gypsy culture, for a breaking-down of traditional class and cultural barriers.) One thread of the film plays out like a diluted version of Buena Vista Social Club, with Petitet gathering support from friends such as saxophonist Raul Perez, a pragmatic, downbeat individual whose rivalry with Petitet gives the film a bit of interesting friction later on, and flamenco singer El Granaino.

Bosch keeps swinging back to Petitet and others via talking heads of a range of interviewee participants who offer a kind of running commentary on the developing story. Other than that, we basically trail Petitet around his various meetings. Rehearsal footage is sometimes tense, since Petitet is a mean bongos player but not a full-fledged musician himself, and the task of scoring these songs for orchestra is clearly beyond him. It's fascinating to see how people who can't read music and who rely on gut feeling are able to communicate with the professionals.

As the figure at the heart of both the project and the film, Petitet is a corpulent, good-humored man in his 50s who wears black suits and sunglasses and delivers often memorable lines in a strangely high, breathy voice. This is the result of his myasthenia, a neuromuscular disease that pops up at regular intervals to threaten not only the project, but also Petitet himself, whom it leaves unable to breathe; at times, he is reduced to directing the musicians from behind an oxygen mask. "With my illness," he complains, "I shouldn’t be doing what I’m doing." There are regular visits to the hospital: "You are very overweight," his doctor chides him. "I know," he replies. "It’s a mystery." And there is tenderness as well as comedy: The life advice he offers to his nephew in hospital, using a window blind as a prop, is touching and memorable.

There are unanswered questions about exactly how the impoverished Petitet is able to set things up financially — one suspects through sheer force of character — and several issues are glossed over, with the script preferring to focus on a few selected micro-stories rather than supply exhaustive detail. That said, a visit to the town council to seek permission to play at the Liceu is probably, like a couple of other sequences, superfluous to dramatic requirements. But when at last it's time to take our seats and enjoy the rhythms of the Raval Rumba Symphony Orchestra in live performance, all quibbles are instantly swept away.

Production companies: Lastor Media, Turkana Films
Cast: Joan Ximenez (‘Petitet’), Raul Perez, El Granaino
Director: Carles Bosch
Screenwriters: Carles Bosch, David Vidal
Producers: Tono Folguera, Sergi Moreno, Carles Bosch
Executive producers: Sofia Amadori, Joan Antoni Barjau, Maria Rosa Fuste, Guillem Lira, Alejandra Mora, Alfonso Par, Leopoldo Samso
Director of photography: Sofia Amadori
Editors: Carlos Prieto, Ernest Blasi
Composer: Josep Sanou
Sales: Lastor Media

107 minutes