written and directed by Tony Gatlif with Antonio Canales runs Sept. 14-20 at Varsity
IN THE WAKE of Buena Vista Social Club, exotic "niche" soundtracks have become a profitable mini-phenomenon, nearly independent of their filmic origins. What the bluegrass-popularizing O Brother, Where Art Thou? was to 2000, Vengo just may be to this year. CD buyers will surely respond to the movie's dazzling portrayal of the indigenous gypsy sound, an arresting amalgam of frenetic instrumentation and soul-searing vocals.
Unfortunately, considered only as a film, Vengo is better suited to record stores than the multiplex, remaining desperately short on plot and cohesive narrative. That's not entirely surprising; Latcho Drom director Tony Gatlif is known for the predominance of music in his work. What's his basic premise here? Two warring Andalusian clans are locked in a bitter feud in which one group's proud leader, Caco (Antonio Canales), must protect his disabled nephew from the other side's plans for retribution. (Caco and Diego make an unlikely, tender pair; even Caco's procuring of a birthday hooker for the youngster, who can barely control the jerky movements of his limbs and tongue, is surprisingly sweet.) Otherwise, Vengo is enlivened by several fervent musical segments in which beautiful women— and some considerably less attractive men—dance torrid flamencos on wooden planks, truck beds, and even dirt roads while the pounding sounds of their native music build to a feverish crescendo.
Though Canales is evidently a famed flamenco dancer, we hardly see him move beyond a few half-hearted shuffles; instead, his sad eyes and hooded, lizardy good looks—not unlike those of an older, wiser Benicio Del Toro—do most of the physical work. Compelling as he is, his grave presence isn't enough to save Vengo from being a mere footnote to a magical collection of songs.