FEW movies have gotten Gypsies convincingly onto the screen. The best was probably ``Angelo, My Love,'' an unusual cross between fiction and documentary that actor Robert Duvall directed a few years ago. Other efforts, such as the dismal ``King of the Gypsies,'' which gave Eric Roberts his first movie role, have fallen far below its high standard. Now there's a film that has surprising success in portraying the hard, often chaotic lives of Gypsy peasants. It's called ``Time of the Gypsies,'' and it was filmed in real Gypsy territories of Europe, mostly in Yugoslavia and Italy.
The story begins in Yugoslavia, where we meet the main character: Perhan, a young Gypsy whose mother is dead and whose father has abandoned him. He lives with his grandmother, a Gypsy healer who leads a more decent and honest life than most of the others in their community.
Perhan loves his family, especially his little sister, who suffers from a deformed leg. He also has a girlfriend he plans to marry. His life promises to go pretty smoothly - by Gypsy standards - if he stays close to home and follows in his grandmother's footsteps. But there are villains in town to distract him.
One is his uncle, a nasty character if ever there was one. Another is a wealthy man named Ahmed, who comes up with an evil scheme: He tells Perhan that his sister's leg can be cured in the big city, and lures both youngsters into going away with him. Then he embroils them in his own awful activities, which range from stealing to selling babies across the Italian border. Perhan gets deeply involved in these crimes and has lots of lessons to learn before his tale finally ends.
This is a grim and distasteful story at times, but the plot is less important than the way it's been filmed - with terrific imagination and more visual surprises than ordinary movies ever have up their sleeves. ``Time of the Gypsies'' was directed by Emir Kusturica, a Yugoslavian filmmaker who's well-known to fans of European cinema. His last movie, ``When Father Was Away on Business,'' was an Academy Award nominee for best foreign-language film in 1985, and his earlier ``Do You Remember Dolly Bell?'' has also been shown on American screens. A truly international filmmaker, with a style that borrows from Hollywood movies as well as the great European tradition, he now teaches at Columbia University in New York and plays occasionally with a Yugoslavian rock band called No Smoking.
Mr. Kusturica won the best-director award at last year's Cannes Film Festival for ``Time of the Gypsies,'' as well as the Roberto Rossellini prize, given by a jury of international filmmakers. In technique and storytelling, the picture is strong enough to justify such attention. Kusturica keeps it moving at breakneck speed, and gives his audience something unexpected to look at in nearly every scene.
The picture also strikes a fascinating balance between real and fantastic elements. On one hand, Kusturica pours a lot of realism into the film. The performances are earthy and naturalistic. In addition, most of the important characters are played (according to Columbia Pictures, the movie's American distributor) by real Gypsies, many of them illiterate and all of them acting for the first time. Accordingly, more than 90 percent of the movie's dialogue is spoken in Romany, a Gypsy language.
At the same time, however, the cinematography (by Vilko Filac) often veers toward flagrantly dreamlike imagery, and the screenplay (by Gordan Mihic) has broad touches of what Latin American artists might call magical realism. These elements make an uneven but often invigorating mixture. But the movie always has the ring of truth, however outlandish that truth may sometimes appear.