Although the term “gypsy” is coded with cross-cultural signification, the reality of the lives of the Romani in Europe often escapes our attention. History books remind us that, along with Jews and homosexuals, they were targets of Nazi aggression. The osmosis of political correctness has soaked through the notion that “gypsy” is a somewhat offensive term, as is the derived verb “gyp,” which means to rip off or bilk someone. Perhaps that’s why filmmaker Martin Šulík takes the word gypsy for the title of his film, which uses the framework of William Shakespeare’s Hamlet to examine the plight of the Roma in a village of present-day Slovakia.
Adam (Janko Mizigar) is 14 years old; in the opening scene, Šulík presents him as a free spirit while he runs through the forest with his dog to meet his love Julka (Martinka Kotlarova) by a stream. His sense of youth is crushed, however, when his father (Ivan Mirga) is killed in a car accident. His mother (Miroslava Jarabekova) soon marries his uncle Zigo (Miroslav Gulyas), a small-time loan shark and petty thief. That night, he is visited by his father’s ghost, who in repeated visits tells him the backstory of his own life. Soon, Adam finds himself alienated from his uncle’s control of the family and increasingly from his own community, with his only respite the help of a local priest (Attila Mokos) who attempts to serve their village.
Although Šulík borrows his central plot from perhaps the most famous drama in the history of theater, his primary concern is not so much the storytelling as it is to provide a sense of life for his characters. Borrowing a trick from the neo-realists, he casts the film with amateur actors to give it a sense of authenticity, with the scenes serving more as vignettes rather than building the narrative structure. The repeated image of Adam standing motionless by a creek and staring directly at the camera gives a sense of why Šulík chose this framework: like Shakespeare’s Danish Prince, Adam is frozen in place. Unlike Hamlet, though, Adam is chained not by the inability to do anything, but by the lack of anything to do. The options for work are limited, “even for whites,” he is told by an employment agent; this discrimination forces Adam and his family into the stereotype of the “thieving gypsy,” whether stealing wood from the forest without a permit or gas from a train car. He is offered a potential scholarship to continue school, but this is frowned upon by his community and constrained by the realities of needing to look after his family — not to mention living at the margins of Slovakian society, as we are reminded in a scene where Adam is subjected to a derogatory Roma joke to his face.
In this sense, though, his father’s ghost serves as a foil: he is telling Adam his story so that he does not have to relive it, not so that he can have otherworldly revenge. In the end, Adam’s personal ambivalence transposes itself to the Roma at large: do they as a community attempt to join a world that rejects them, or do they continue in the ways embodied by Zigo, self-reliant, though not always by lawful or even very productive means (the latter notion wonderfully conveyed by two ostriches, which his uncle releases into the wild for sport rather than trying to raise and farm them for food)? The film’s finale does not present a definitive answer even for Adam, as he sits at the stop where a bus often passes by without stopping, his uncle’s van sitting idle to one side and the ostrich wandering into the frame. Adam’s future is bleak, certainly, but the choices are there, murky as they may seem.