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Hard-to-categorize `Mondo' deserves at least one description - winner

While it's not as heartwarming as "Kolya" or as heartbreaking as "Ponette," Gypsy director Tony Gatlif's film "Mondo" still touches your heart - albeit in an almost phantasmagorical way.

"Mondo" is perhaps the year's most uncategorizable film - a mix of drama, fantasy and comedy that effectively conveys the plight of homeless Europeans, believe it or not. Call it a fairytale about the less fortunate and other "oddballs" of society.And besides its offbeat, magical atmosphere, the film also benefits from a charismatic lead performance by 11-year-old Ovidiu Balan, a first-time actor who gives things a childlike sense of whimsy and wonder. (His performance is second only to "Ponette's" Victoire Thivisol among this year's crop of child actors.)

Like the film's director and the actor who plays him, "Mondo" is a Gypsy. We first see the 10-year-old wandering through the streets of Nice, France, and in an outdoor market, where he is pursued by the local police. The boy also introduces himself to strangers by flashing a million-dollar smile and asking them "Would you like to adopt me?"

But alas, there are no takers and the boy continues his roaming, seemingly without a course. Meanwhile, he befriends others of the city's denizens, including a street magician (Philippe Petit), who takes him on as his assistant; Thi-Chin (Pierette Fesch), a Vietnamese woman who offers him shelter when he becomes feverish; and Dadi (Jerry Smith), a veteran of the streets.

Mondo even takes a solo boat voyage and finds his own island, where he discovers a bunch of oranges bearing handwritten messages, floating on the water.

Despite the almost lighthearted atmosphere, things do take a wee turn for the melodramatic at the end, when the police finally catch up to the boy and some of his friends. But given the tragic nature of homelessness, that plot turn isn't too surprising or out of place.

Besides, the film gets by on a lot of charm (from the talented performers) and its sweet nature. Particularly memorable is the scene in which a fisherman, Giordan (Maurice Maurin), teaches Mondo his ABCs.

Incredibly, Gatlif also used real street performers - like Petit, a tightrope artist who once navigated between the two towers of the World Trade Center - to play his cinematic street performers (Smith is a homeless Scotsman who actually lives under several of Nice's bridges!).

"Mondo" is not rated, but would probably receive a PG for a brief nude bathing scene and partial nudity during a scene in which a mother breastfeeds her child.