One lesson every professional critic learns early is to compartmentalize personal reactions, because the way a critic responds to art should be just one component of a review. Just as important is consideration of intentions. Part of the critic’s job is to imagine how the people most sympathetic to the type of art in question might respond. Case in point: Romance of a Horsethief. I didn’t dig the movie, but I recognize how other people might. A multinational production set in early 20th-century Poland, the movie has a little bit of everything, because some scenes are adventurous, some are comedic, some are dramatic, and some, as the title promises, are romantic. The acting and production values are respectable, and there’s an appealing humanism to the way the film treats its characters. Yet the story is so diffuse that I couldn’t engage with the film on any meaningful level.
The title character is Zanvill (Oliver Tobias), who steals horses alongside the older Kifke (Eli Wallach). They live in a small Jewish village. One day, regional military official Captain Stoloff (Yul Brynner) orders the seizure of all the village’s horses for military use. Doing so triggers intrigue and reprisals. Meanwhile, unrelated strife results from parents in the village trying to manage their kids’ love lives. Then wealthy Naomi (Jane Birkin) returns from travels abroad with ideas about rebelling against authority. Once all the storylines converge, Naomi’s dalliance with Zanvill escalates the conflict between villagers and Captain Stoloff’s troops into a mini-revolution.
Tracking all the comings and goings of the plot is exhausting, and it’s no surprise Romance of a Horsethief was adapted from a novel. The book was penned by Joseph Opatoshu, whose son, the fine actor David Opatoshu, wrote the script for this movie and plays a supporting role. It’s tempting to conjecture that he felt obligated to use everything his father created. Be that as it may, only some of what happens in Romance of a Horsethief is interesting, and it’s hard to tell whether the appeal stems entirely from the presence of charismatic actors. Not a single participant in this movie delivers exemplary work, though many—Brynner, Opatoshu, Wallach, costar Lainie Kazan—elevate individual scenes. That all of the Birkin-Tobias scenes fall flat says a lot, seeing as how they’re the movie’s least interesting performers. Viewers interested in the experiences of European Jews may find Romance of a Horsethief illuminating from a historical perspective, but viewers craving standard-issue period romance will be disappointed. While not a bad movie by any measure, Romance of a Horsethief is thoroughly underwhelming.
Romance of a Horsethief: FUNKY