“They tricked us, heaven doesn’t exist.” If 14-year-old Adam (Ján Mižigár) is surprised to hear this, he doesn’t show it. Instead, he nods, as his father — actually, his father’s ghost (Ivan Mirga) — continues: “God only has a small office up there.” At this point in Gypsy (Cigán), just a few minutes in, Adam has already faced enough hardship that this news, and the visit from the ghost, makes a certain sense.
Opening this week at the Film Forum in New York, Martin Šulík’s film tracks Adam’s efforts to survive his father’s death by car accident (or so he’s told), as well as abuse by non-Roma neighbors in the eastern Slovakian ghetto and pressure from his loan shark uncle Zigo (Miroslav Gulyas) to join in his family business. This pressure increases when Adam’s mother marries Zigo (a plot point underscoring the film’s Hamlet-ish intrigue, however clumsily), and goes on to look increasingly mournful and subdued. Adam finds some solace in Jula (Martina Kotlárová), a girl who risks her friends’ ridicule by spending time with him, and also in a priest (Attila Mokos), who encourages him to resist the path of his uncle’s corruption and violence. Zigo makes his own case, insisting that the institutional and more general racism afflicting the Roma community justifies his activities. He pursues power in its most fundamental form, and turns it into retaliation. “A gypsy can live like a human” he snarls, “only when he stops being a gypsy.” The argument is only compelling if you can forget the brutality Zigo embodies and encourages, a prescription Adam finds this increasingly hard to follow.