There have been hardly any films about gypsies and their culture depicted in Hollywood’s golden age unless they were background figures (The Wolf Man, 1941) or treated in a broad, theatrical manner in comedies (The Bohemian Girl, 1936) or costume dramas (Hot Blood, 1956). King of the Gypsies (1978), based on the Peter Maas novel and featuring Eric Roberts in his film debut, was an attempt to offer an insider look at this often demonized group but seemed more like an unintentional parody than a serious drama. It wasn’t until filmmakers outside the U.S. began to focus on gypsy culture that a number of influential movies on the subject began to appear later in the 20th century such as Aleksandar Petrovic’s Skupljaci Perja (1967), which was released in the U.S. as I Even Met Happy Gypsies.
Petrovic, who was born in Paris but lived and worked in Yugoslavia for most of his career, wrote and directed I Even Met Happy Gypsies in the style and manner of a picaresque folk tale. The film is tragic, cruel and grimly realistic but it is also brimming over with quirky humor, absurdist drama and compassion for its downtrodden ethnic group, the Romanian gypsies of Yugoslavia. At times Petrovic’s film has the look and feel of an ethnographic docu-drama, which is partly due to the casting of many Romanian gypsies in supporting roles and filming locations in rural areas of Serbia and Yugoslavia, but the final result is an atmospheric dramatization of a vanishing way of life that seems out of step with the modern world.
I Even Met Happy Gypsies lacks a traditional plot and is more of a character-driven slice of life which follows the misadventures of Bora (Bekim Fehmiu), a hustling wheeler-dealer who makes a hand-to-mouth living as a goose feather merchant. Most of the movie is about his rivalry with Mirta (Velimir ‘Bata’ Zivojinovic), an unscrupulous fellow feather merchant who has broken their previous pact not to compete in each other’s territory. Among the other characters who are caught in the conflict between them are Tisa (Gordana Jovanovic), the unhappy teenage stepdaughter of Mirta plus Lence (Olivera Katarina), a singer at the local bar, a shady village priest, a nun who wields considerable power in the community, Bora’s much-abused wife and various eccentric figures in their world.
As the main protagonist, Bora functions more as an anti-hero who is hard to like or admire. He is an unlucky gambler, drinks too much, mistreats women and completely negligent as the father of several children. Still, he is preferable to the even more despicable Mirta and is capable of kindness and generosity to friends. He also attempts to rescue Tisa from her manipulative stepfather by marrying her (making him a bigamist) and helping her to escape to Belgrade. Nothing goes as planned, of course, and Tisa’s sad trajectory provides a secondary storyline which culminates in a creepy incident involving two truck drivers who offer her a lift and end up raping her. They place her in their cargo of animal carcasses and later dump her almost lifeless body (she survives) in a muddy ditch beside the road.
The movie reaches its climax in a knife fight to the death between Bora and Mirta amid a mountain of goose feathers. The two rivals disappear beneath the white fluff which hides the violence underneath and only one man emerges the victor.
The title I Even Met Happy Gypsies, which comes from a line in a folk song performed in the movie, seems ironic and a more appropriate title would be The Feather Gatherers (the rough translation of the original title) or even I Never Met a Happy Gypsy since what is depicted is a backward culture where women are second class citizens, there is no formal education or work skills that can sustain an individual, and everyone struggles on a daily basis to survive the grinding poverty. For contemporary viewers, the movie may be hard to watch due to its treatment of women, children and animals (particularly a scene where a goose is force fed). In fact, Petrovic’s movie does nothing to refute the kind of stereotypes that have plagued gypsies for years and actually reinforces them. Still, it has a raw authenticity and never feels fake or contrived.
For the more adventurous film lover, I Even Met Happy Gypsies is a consistently captivating viewing experience with sequences that work as pure visual poetry (The cinematography by Tomislav Pinter is rife with cutaways to religious iconography and folk art murals). It also provides a unique window into a world where music, dancing, and village rituals like weddings and funerals become celebrations of age-old traditions rarely glimpsed outside their insular universe. Some of the more memorable moments are often oddly humorous and surreal such as the sequence where the villagers gather outside the bedroom window of Tisa to watch as her even younger husband (he looks 12 or younger) tries to consummate their marriage. He fails and Tisa kicks him out of bed only to be physically attacked by her mother-in-law. The battling duo stumble into a muddy pond amid the cries of the villagers and the disturbance causes the goose-herding dog to run off with a tin can attached to its tail. Amid the cacophony the entire flock of geese disperse in all directions with the villagers chasing after them in vain.
Another major asset of the film is Bekim Fehmiu in the role of Bora. With his rough-hewn handsomeness and macho swagger, he has a compelling screen presence that is made more fascinating by his volatile and often unpredictable behavior. A typical example is a scene where he gambles the family money away in a card game and literally loses the shirt and jacket off his back. As he walks home half-naked with his wife and children wailing behind him, he has another mission – to grab the family TV set (their only remaining asset) and pawn it at a store.
Equally memorable is a scene where Bora gets drunk on pitchers of wine at the local tavern, smashes the glasses and slams his palms down on the broken shards, piecing the skin. Then he laughs and raises up his bloodied hands as if in victory in one of several WTF moments.
Fehmiu, who was born in Sarajevo and became a film actor in 1961, received widespread acclaim for his performance in I Even Met Happy Gypsies and soon Hollywood came calling. He was cast as the star of the opulent, all-star 1970 potboiler epic The Adventurers, based on the trashy Harold Robbins novel, and followed it up with the well-regarded spaghetti western The Deserter (1970), but international stardom was not in the cards. Fehmiu continued to act, mostly in Yugoslavian and European films as the lead or in major supporting parts, but never enjoyed a breakout success in the U.S. Nevertheless, some of his later work is well known to film buffs and includes the Italian biopic Cagliostro (1975), the British-Austrian espionage drama Permission to Kill aka The Executioner (1975) with Dirk Bogarde and Ava Gardner, Tinto Brass’s infamous Nazi sexploitation drama Madame Kitty (1976) and John Frankenheimer’s underrated thriller Black Sunday (1977) in which he played a Black September terrorist.
His final film was the historical epic Genghis Khan: The Story of a Lifetime (2010), directed by Ken Annakin (Battle of the Bulge) and co-starring Richard Tyson as Khan, Charlton Heston and James Mitchum. Unfortunately, after suffering a stroke that left him partially paralyzed in 2010, he committed suicide and died of a gunshot wound.
Among the other prominent cast members in I Even Met Happy Gypsies is the Serbian singer and actress Olivera Katarina aka Olivera Vuco. Katarina plays the role of Lence, a singer at the local tavern and a woman of loose virtue in Petrovic’s film. Her dark, exotic beauty and intense acting style have been showcased in numerous international genre films including the spy caper Kommissar X: Kiss Kiss Kill Kill (1966), the WWI drama Fraulein Doktor (1969), Thomas Schamoni’s A Big Grey-Blue Bird (Ein Grosser Graublauer Vogal, 1970), a lesser known example of the New German cinema movement of the late sixties, and a scene-stealing minor role in Arne Mattsson’s erotic softcore romp Ann and Eve (1970).
As for director Petrovic, I Even Met Happy Gypsies remains the crowning achievement of his filmography of ten features and various shorts. The film was the Oscar nominee for Best Foreign Language film of 1968. It was also nominated for the Palme d’Or at Cannes and was the winner of the FIPRESCI prize and the Grand Jury prize (tied with Joseph Losey’s Accident) at the same festival. The film also received a Best Foreign Language film nomination at the 1969 Golden Globes.
Petrovic was also received two other Palme d’Or nominations from the Cannes Film Festival for It Rains in My Village (Bice Skoro Propast Sveta, 1968) and Group Portrait with a Lady (Gruppenbild mit Dame, 1977) starring Romy Schneider and Brad Dourif. However, his 1972 adaptation of Mikhail A. Bulgakov’s fantastical novel The Master and Margaret aka Il Maestro e Margherita with Ugo Tognazzi and Mimsy Farmer is probably Petrovic’s most famous film after I Even Met Happy Gypsies. It premiered to great acclaim at the Chicago Film Festival in 1972 but didn’t receive distribution in the U.S. until 1980 when it was exhibited in an English-dubbed version.
I Even Met Happy Gypsies is not currently available on any analog format in the U.S. but you might be able to still purchase a PAL DVD of the film from international sellers if you own an all-region Blu-ray/DVD player. This seems like an ideal candidate for pickup by some savvy art house distributor like Arrow Films or Second Run DVD but, in the meantime, you can stream a better-than-expected English subtitled version of it on the Cave of Forgotten Films website.
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