"Angelo My Love," which opens today at the Inner Circle, is a fascinating and ultimately disconcerting sojourn with Angelo Evans, a gypsy cherub befriended in 1977 in New York City by Robert Duvall.
Angelo was 8 when Duvall heard him say, to a woman more than three times his age, "Patricia, if you don't love me no more, I'm going to move to Cincinnati." Fascinated, Duvall was drawn into the gypsy community and, after listening to family tales, wrote and then directed his own screenplay in between acting jobs in "True Confessions," "The Great Santini," "The Pursuit of D.B. Cooper" and "Tender Mercies."
Angelo is indeed a remarkable find--a disconcerting child-adult, a midget John Travolta from whom Duvall has obtained a remarkably natural performance as a preternaturally wised-up preteen-ager. Indeed, the first nine credits go to gypsies who were somehow persuaded to portray versions of themselves in a story based on versions of their lives.
"Angelo My Love," with its unhurried pace and improvisatory dialogue, has the feel of a documentary, but it journeys far from the protections of that form. Duvall--directing for the second time, after "We're Not the Jet Set" of 1975--provides a loose plot involving the theft of an ancestral ring that Angelo expected to become his own. Angelo has a pretty good idea who stole it, but when the offender is brought to a gypsy "kris," or trial, justice proves elusive. Angelo and his older brother--Michael Evans, who bears a resemblance to Sal Mineo--elicit the help of a relative, Frankie Williams, and pursue the suspect themselves on an odyssey that takes them as far as Canada.
The apparent thief is a Falstaffian buffoon, Steve Tsigonoff, also known as Patalay. Obese, and with a golf-ball nose, Patalay is accompanied by his sister Millie--a shrew in the shape of a stork who pecks him mercilessly.
As Steve and Millie are urban gypsies, but on the trek northward in their jalopy station wagon, instinct apparently prompts them to stop now and again to steal chickens, which they cook over the open fire. They hook up with a gypsy caravan, which is invaded by a ghost, prompting hysteria even among the gypsy elders. Duvall's camera records these hilarities without comment. It is left to young Angelo to say, gazing at his kinfolk, "God, these people is ugly."
The plan to steal back the ring eventually coincides with a gypsy wedding, which turns out to be the real-life wedding of Michael Evans, age 14. The price of his bride was set at $8,000, less a $500 rebate. The real wedding footage had to be reshot, however, when Michael was divorced one month later.
Angelo, from the beginning, justifies Duvall's fascination. He is presented on his first day of school, which lasts only a few hours because Angelo can't read. But he can fight, and when he rises to challenge a classmate it is with uncannily perfect macho poise. Nights he spends disco-dancing with amused adults, and in his blue blazer and splayed shirt collar passes readily as a sort of stud savant. Incorrigibly adorable, he stands up his steady girlfriend while sweet-talking his way into a caricature dalliance in the dressing room of a prepubescent country singer, Cathy Kitchen. All this Duvall presents as if to say: This boy is real, isn't it marvelous?
He is. But the marvel turns on itself when it becomes apparent that Duvall really can't tell us what we need to know. None of the gypsies seems to have a job, although they drive Cadillacs and Angelo expects $20 a day in spending money. There are cryptic references to family income: When Angelo asks to go shopping, his mother replies, "We go shopping every day." In a chillingly ambiguous scene, Angelo and his sister Debbie seem determined to rob or con a harmless old woman. Only at the end of the film, as the credits roll, are we clearly shown Angelo and his father boosting mechandise from a department store.
The growing suspicion that we are not being told the truth about Angelo and the gypsies grows until it throws the story off-balance and Duvall's whole conception begins to wobble. It is not a problem of morality, but of form. Audiences have no trouble enjoying stories about kids outside polite society--as in "Little Miss Marker" or "Paper Moon"--or about adult sociopaths such as those celebrated in "The Godfather." Fiction is a point of view, and nothing else needs matter.
But "Angelo My Love" presents its subject without a point of view, and in the bosom of his family and tradition. Without actors, there is no distance, and suddenly everything else starts to matter. Steve Tsigonoff and his sister, stumblebum uglies that they are, are also real people, and it gives you a funny feeling to laugh at them in a theater when you would not in person. As for Angelo, is he a tragic figure--a 10-year-old who can't read, and who will steal your wallet? Or is he fair game for an objective camera, a young man learning shoplifting from his father and for whom only a sucker would feel pity?
"Angelo My Love" is a labor of love, charming and spritely. As a work of art it is, alas, disqualified: Robert Duvall, in this unusual collaboration with his subjects, backed off from judgment to reportage. Because he doesn't know what he really thinks of Angelo, neither can we. ANGELO MY LOVE
Directed and written by Robert Duvall; director of photography, Joseph Friedman; edited by Stephen Mack; music by Michael Kamen; released by Cinecom International Films. Unrated; 115 minutes. THE CAST Angelo Evans . . . himself Michael Evans . . . himself Ruthie Evans . . . herself Tony Evans . . . himself Debbie Evans . . . herself