At the movies, strains of music are in the air - folk music, to be exact, although that label takes on very different meanings in two pictures opening this week.
Gadjo Dilo comes from director Tony Gatlif, who thrilled music lovers and movie fans with his lively "Latcho Drom," a celebration of Gypsy music that earned prizes and applause in 1993. Gatlif's biography is a study in multiculturalism - he's a French filmmaker born in Algeria to Gypsy parents of Spanish origin - and in "Gadjo Dilo" he capitalizes on his international roots by spinning the story of a wandering hero.
His name is Stphane, and he's fallen in love with the voice of a singer on a cassette that was treasured by his late father. Determined to find the mysterious musician, he travels from France to Romania and makes his way to a rural Gypsy community where he hopes to find the clues he needs. There he's befriended by an aging musician named Izidor who spends his nights carousing and his days worrying about his son, a young rascal currently in jail on charges Izidor swears are spurious. Stphane also draws close to Sabina, a dancer who's as fiery as she is talented.
The plot of "Gadjo Dilo" is very slim, reflecting the rambling and uncertain nature of Stphane's quest. There are some eye-opening surprises, as when we eventually see the truth about Izidor's wayward son, but some moviegoers may be disappointed by its general lack of a hard-driving story. Others won't like its moments of sex and vulgar language, and still others may question Gatlif's decision to pair a professional movie actor (Romain Duris) with a nonprofessional cast in the Gypsy roles, creating occasional mismatches of style and talent.
Happily, such problems pale alongside the picture's main attraction: scene after scene of Gypsy music and dance, performed with a skill, energy, and sheer exuberance that no other current film can equal. In its vivid portrait of a culture that few moviegoers have experienced firsthand, its only direct rival is Robert Duvall's "Angelo, My Love," a 1983 docudrama that also focused on real-life Gypsies playing characters drawn from their own community.
More adventurous and enticing than earlier Gatlif successes like "Latcho Drom" and the gentle "Mondo," the best scenes of "Gadjo Dilo" have an audiovisual power that's close to explosive. The picture is not for everyone, but moviegoers with a taste for folkloric culture will find it a rare treat.
Arriving on screen at almost the same time is a long-overdue revival of Murray Lerner's documentary Festival!, shot at the fabled Newport Folk Festival from 1963 to 1966 and completed the following year. Filmed and recorded with a no-frills authenticity that nicely suits its subject, it provides a closeup look at the urban American folk movement in its most glorious days, complete with numbers by everyone from Joan Baez and Judy Collins to Donovan and Buffy Sainte-Marie, not to mention Bob Dylan in what the movie's promoters amusingly call his "pre-attitude" period. Music lovers, nostalgia fans, and sociology buffs will all find lots to savor.
* Neither film has been rated. 'Gadjo Dilo' contains extremely vulgar language and brief but very explicit sex. 'Festival!' contains a little vulgar language.