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Tony Gatlif Tom Medina Review

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Tom Medina | 2021 Cannes Film Festival Review

Tom Medina | 2021 Cannes Film Festival Review

The Man Without a Country: Gatlif Explores the Tribulations of Redemption in Oblique Character Study

Tony Gatlif Tom Medina ReviewFrench-Algerian director Tony Gatlif remains something of a European anomaly despite steady output since the 1970s, many of which have premiered at high profile film festivals, with Cannes remaining his mainstay. Often exploring the roots of his Romani culture through displaced characters, his nineteenth feature Tom Medina is purportedly partly autobiographical while revisiting similar themes and parameters.

While his 1993 musical Latcho Drom remains one of his most lauded efforts, the late 1990s and early 2000s afforded him significant visibility, including several projects starring a young Romain Duris, such as 2004’s Exils, which won him a Best Director award at the Cannes Film Festival. His latest is an ambiguous character portrait of an eponymous drifter undergoing a significant ‘stranger in a strange land’ predicament, also utilizing vibrant musical cues. Although not perhaps the best entry of discovery for those new to the director, Gatlif was one of the first to complete a project whose production was halted by the pandemic in a film which seamlessly segues from an esoteric angst narrative to an enjoyably formatted odyssey on catharsis and compassion.

Tom Medina (David Murgia), aimlessly travels to the property of Ulysses (Slimane Dazi), where he will serve probation for a past crime as sentenced by a juvenile tribunal. His dream is to serve his time and head to Spain, where he will train to ‘sort bulls’ as a ‘gardien,’ though it’s increasingly obvious a past trauma has left him adrift well into adulthood. After a begrudging friendship with Ulysses’ daughter/employee enervates him, he finds himself drawn to a local drifter, Suzanne, whose child has been taken away from her.

As Tom Medina, Belgian actor David Murgia (reminiscent of a young Bruno Todeschini), one of many breakouts from Michael R. Roskam’s Bullhead (2011), is an inscrutable vagabond, recalling 1990s era punk demigods (like Johnny Depp in something like Benny & Joon, 1993). Fated to criminality despite a unique chance of rehabilitation, his penchant for doing the right thing leads him to a state of constant duress. Biding his time with Ulysses, he’s reminiscent of the asylum seeker in Ben Sharrock’s recent Limbo, doomed to alienation and stagnation despite dreams which are just shy of his reach.

Set in Camargue, Gatlif makes excellent use of significant wildlife flourishes, from horses, owls, flamingos, and eels, while Medina himself is haunted by visions of a ‘ghost bull,’ referred to as mirage sickness thanks to the region’s purported telluric energy. Enigmatic details abound on the region, which sports a Provencal language, with various references to Ulysses using Jouse d’Arbaud’s 1926 horror novella The Beast of Vaccarès as a learning tool.

Eventually, it’s revealed Medina and Ulysses (a dour and dependable Slimane Dazi, A Prophet, 2009) share similar trauma explaining their easy affinity, but the more curious dynamic exists between Murgia and two women. The first is Ulysses’ recalcitrant daughter, played by French-German singer Karoline Rose (whose various bits of belting out hard rock, including for her online fan base, are among the film’s best moments) is initially off putting but eventually finds herself championing the melancholy Medina. A forced romance with fellow down-and-out Suzanne (Suzanne Aubert), who sells rosemary outside of a local church and mourns losing custody of her daughter, is the catalyst for the third act, despite the more interesting elements of the film being when Tom Medina resists these predictable expectations.

Shot by Patrick Ghiringhelli (of Dominik Moll’s Only the Animals, 2019), Gatlif has created a beautiful showcase for Camargue. However, one wishes Tom Medina was more enigmatic, at least enough to justify his titular omnipotence.

Reviewed on July 8th at the 2021 Cannes Film Festival – Official Selection – Cinema de la plage. 96 Mins.

★★½/☆☆☆☆☆

Los Angeles based Nicholas Bell is IONCINEMA.com's Chief Film Critic and covers film festivals such as Sundance, Berlin, Cannes and TIFF. He is part of the critic groups on Rotten Tomatoes, The Los Angeles Film Critics Association (LAFCA), FIPRESCI, the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and GALECA. His top 3 for 2023: The Beast (Bonello) Poor Things (Lanthimos), Master Gardener (Schrader). He was a jury member at the 2019 Cleveland International Film Festival.

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