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A rollicking rebuke to amateur musicologists everywhere, Gadjo Dilo is a culture-clash comedy with a tragic kicker. French gypsy (or Rom) writer-director Tony Gatlif’s latest exploration of his ethnic heritage, the film opens with young Parisian Stéphane (Romain Duris) slogging down a snowy road in Romania. “I won’t walk,” he declares, and so instead he begins to pirouette. The film doesn’t stop twirling for another 90 minutes.

Stéphane is in search of Rom singer Nora Luca, one of his father’s favorites. To the Frenchman, this quest is simply for a piece of himself, but the Rom he meets don’t recognize him as one of their own. They call him gadjo dilo—crazy foreigner—and as he encounters the gypsy community, Sté#phane realizes that he is indeed an outsider. “Lick my pussy,” Rom women taunt him as they pass on a cart, and the first Rom man who engages him in conversation insists that Stéphane have a drink in honor of his newly imprisoned son. “I don’t drink,” the Frenchman demurs. It’s the wrong answer. “May you die if you don’t drink to the health of my son,” announces Izidor (Isidor Serban).

Sté#phane drinks, and soon he develops a taste for the “fire” that Izidor, a gnarled violinist, and his cohorts consume on every possible occasion. The Rom are suspicious of the gadjo, accusing him of the crimes normally alleged of gypsies: He will put a curse on their houses, or at least steal their chickens. (When Stéphane cleans up Izidor’s house, the locals fear he’s something even worse, a “faggot.”) But Izidor accepts the newcomer as “my Frenchman” and a surrogate son. Soon Stéphane is learning a wealth of filthy phrases, and in appreciation he teaches his patron such pungent French slogans as “Le Pen is a motherfucker!”

At first, the Frenchman is less successful with Sabina (classically trained actress and former rock-band singer Rona Hartner); the hot-tempered beauty suffered romantic disappointment in Belgium and is therefore hostile to all Western Europeans. Even though she speaks “Belgian” (that is, French), Sabina rebuffs Sté#phane, biting him when he tries to help her carry a load of firewood. As Stéphane follows the local musicians and dancers (including Sabina) to various local gigs, however, the two become friends. Soon, they’re snarling explicit pre-coital endearments at each other, in dialogue that could blister the paint in Ken Starr’s office.

Like Latcho Drom, the best-known of Gatlif’s films, Gadjo Dilo is in a sense a musical. The boy-seeks-singer-then-meets-girl plot is fleshed out by many Rom performances, only some of them literally musical. The gypsies dance, sing, and smash crockery, but they also perform wedding and funeral rituals that are richly theatrical. (If the father of the bride welcomes you to a Rom wedding with an ax, don’t worry—it’s all part of the fun.) With Sabina and sometimes Izidor as his guide, Stéphane travels the countryside, recording Rom music, whose sinuous melodies disclose its ancient origins in Egypt and India. The unremitting energy and exuberant crowd scenes give the film an improvised feel, although in fact it was carefully scripted and staged. (Gatlif did quickly rewrite the latter half of the script on location, however, after deciding that his original scenario had been overtaken by events.)

The music isn’t the only thing that seems primeval in contemporary Romania. When Izidor’s son Adrjani (Florin Moldovan) is released from prison, he’s revealed as an entirely up-to-date post-Eastern Bloc figure, the small-town gangster. His crude attempt to avenge himself on his jailers, however, leads to an ethnic confrontation of the sort that’s all too chronic in Eastern European history.

As Stéphane leaves, he apparently concludes that the mournful music he’s taped is too profound for Western ears; it will lose its meaning in Paris. Perhaps that’s true, but Gatlif doesn’t apply the same standard to his own work. He’s entirely willing to bring the spectacle of Rom poverty and oppression to Western audiences who may find it merely colorful. As Gadjo Dilo shows, however, the Rom have formidable cultural defense mechanisms. Indeed, American viewers may be reminded of another form of music that wraps its sentimentality in threats and expletives: gangsta rap.

The latest in Merchant-Ivory’s great-men-in-Paris series, A Soldier’s Daughter Never Cries is based on an autobiographical 1990 novel by Kaylie Jones, the daughter of novelist James Jones. (He wrote From Here to Eternity and The Thin Red Line, the latter of which is the basis for Terence Malick’s upcoming film, the Badlands director’s first in 20 years.) As with Jefferson in Paris and especially Surviving Picasso, the intent is exculpatory: Ivory (who directed and co-wrote the script with longtime collaborator Ruth Prawer Jhabvala) means to show just how gosh-darn nice Jones was. Although there are hints that he was an alcoholic with a violent temper, the film portrays him as just about the best dad a girl ever had.

In this conceit, Ivory and Jhabvala are not deviating substantially from Kaylie Jones’ book. In the midst of her affectionate portrait of her father, however, Jones does include a few of his outbursts of rage, including one where he slams a 5-year-old against a wall for kicking his daughter. No such incidents occur in the movie, in which Bill Willis (Kris Kristofferson) is characterized mostly by plain-spokenness, rationality, and kindness. Although frequently absent in either body or spirit, Bill is more dependable than his wife, Marcella (Barbara Hershey), the only parent depicted as drinking to excess.

Divided into three chapters, A Soldier’s Daughter Never Cries concentrates on Channe Willis (Luisa Conlon in the first episode, Leelee Sobieski in the other two) and her relationships with three males: Her adopted brother Benoît, who soon chooses to rename himself Billy (Samuel Gruen, then Jesse Bradford); her flamboyant school friend Francis Fortescue (Anthony Roth Constanzo); and her father. The father is a good-ol’-boy intellectual, while Billy, traumatized by his time in an orphanage, is closely guarded emotionally but fiercely loyal to the family that rescued him. He couldn’t be more different from Francis, an opera buff whose precocious sophistication and taste for melodrama, Ivory has noted, remind the director of himself as a boy.

For some reason, Channe attracts misplaced erotic interest of all the wrong sorts: As she reaches adolescence, she begins to be suffocated by the overwhelming love of her Portuguese “peasant” nanny Candida (Dominique Blanc), while Francis’ passion for Channe is clearly some sort of mixed-up identification. Taught all about women by his bohemian mother (Jane Birkin), Francis calmly takes charge when Channe has her first period, then tells her he’s “a little bit in love” with her just as their friendship is unraveling. (The book makes it clear that puberty is the cause of their estrangement, something that’s a bit perplexing in the film, since 14-year-old Sobieski, who looks like a young Helen Hunt, plays Channe from age 12 to 18.) When the dying Bill Willis moves his family moves back to the United States in the mid-’70s, Channe’s Parisian sexual nonchalance quickly earns her a reputation as a slut among her working-class Long Island classmates.

Ivory and Jhabvala’s principal deviation from the novel comes in using the story of Billy’s mother (Virginie Ledoyen) as a framing device. Like the heroine of Firelight, she’s written a diary to be presented someday to her lost child, but her account doesn’t seem any more integral to the film than it does to the book, where it’s an appendix. The device allows cinematographer Jean-Marc Fabre to open the film with a striking shot of Ledoyen inside a beach house, but Billy’s insistence on becoming as American as possible renders extraneous her diary, which he refuses to read.

Despite its sanitized depiction of Bill Willis, A Soldier’s Daughter Never Cries is in many ways agreeable. Relaxed and episodic, the film depends on small incidents and keen details rather than overall emotional impact. (It has a very different vibe from last week’s self-centered-daughter-and-dying-parent flick, One True Thing.) Still, it sometimes seems that Ivory, Jhabvala, and producer James Merchant took the course of least resistance, never questioning Kaylie Jones’ approach to the material. After years of specializing in tales of repressed emotions, the filmmakers might have realized that the story they really know how to tell is not Channe’s but Billy’s.CP