Camera obscura (2016): Anachronistic Avantgarde

The last year or so has seen several Romanian documentaries about cinematic heritage and the associated resistance against the communist dictatorship, with Chuck Norris vs. Communism (2015) [review] and Cinema, mon amour (2015) [review] at the forefront. Their desire to paint this picture of subversiveness is a stretch undermining some of the unique stories they
present and Camera Obscura proves a perfect companion piece in this regard.

camera-obscura
Starting with the sixties, many state owned companies (usually in the primary or manufacturing industries) decided to subsidize some form of cinema clubs, providing obsolete tools from before the war and facilities for those interested to partake, with the aim of fostering some sort of communal film-making endeavour. The objective was to produce mostly propagandistic material, document work procedures and provide some stock footage of day to day activities. However, a great temptation to go beyond this existed and was not rigorously discouraged, conditioned by strict monitoring and censorship.

Camera obscura is, for better and worse, a walk down memory lane. A series of talking heads are interspersed between archival footage ranging from the mundane to, honestly, the sublime. The discussion is not particularly focused, but the emphasis falls on the technical aspects conditioning production, as well as the comprehensive interest in cinematic aptitude – rather than cinematic art. It makes sense, as the people partaking in the cinema clubs mostly had a technical background. Yet, especially because of this, some of the best moments in the movie come to the fore: a sisyphic, anti-system short about a man pushing a nut with his nose; a Beckett-esque scene with three men sharing a metallic office closet; a metaphoric cartoon about going to the store and buying some (very rare) chicken wings; or a visual analysis/juxtaposition of drawings following the rhythm of a scene in traffic. In a way it’s funny, because there’s a lot of talk about a kind of experimental cinematic avantgard, when actually, due to existing limitations, most of the work looks like a rehash of the 1920s.

The filming constraints provide some perspective and they frame the idea of the amateur filmmaker – something that has since vanished, in that it has become ubiquitous. But the movie is too stuck in its reminiscences to look for such shifts, which makes it plod at times. This happens particularly in some of the lackluster anecdotes the protagonists retell, or when it offers (unnecessary) interpretation. The nostalgia effect becomes overwhelming, which in itself is not an issue. However, with better framing and contextualization, certain paradoxes and inherent compromises would have become more apparent to viewers. For example, the atmosphere described at the clubs is often romantic, with only regulators being indicated as constraints to the film-making freedom. Yet, it is an accepted truth that with the clubs organized under the unions, there would have been ‘infiltrators’ within them, ready to report on any ill-doings.

While these shortcomings could be overlooked due to the rather solid and coherent material put together by Gheorghe Preda, what I cannot abide by is the occasional lack of focus and the complete pivot made in the final scenes to connect the clubs to the 1989 Revolution. Within ten minutes, there’s a (wannabe) amusing breaking-the-documentary-wall moment, when an interviewee calls his wife and asks her to take care of their dog barking incessantly, followed by fully explicit scenes of freshly dug up bodies of people killed during the Revolution. Talking of rhythm and story, this just doesn’t work and it is not justified either, in the context of what the movie is about.

I would have loved to understand what the people involved in the film-making process ended up doing with their post-communist lives, whether all the precious time spent in understanding the process saw them practice it once they had the freedom to do so. Knowing what the landscape of Romanian cinema was like in the 90s, they probably did not, but this was something worth exploring in conclusion. It would have been more appropriate to the people who took part in this movie, mostly people who have not found artistic or, presumably, financial actualization post ’89.

I do recommend Camera obscura, especially if you have an interest in film-making, because it provides some special moments along the way. It’s just unfortunate that a certain unwillingness to prod deeper and a lack of visionary discipline undermine it over the long run.

***

P.S. When I left the cinema, the projectionist, standing in the freezing cold to have a smoke, stopped me to say that he knew one of the protagonists well, a devoted communist party member in the day. No clue if it’s true, maybe it’s just a neighbour he doesn’t like, but this is the kind of prodding I expected from the movie, with a camera being such a powerful tool during those days, that it was anything but neutral and apolitical.

Afacerea Est: That’s How It’s Done (2016)

I still recall Igor Cobileanski’s first two shorts (“Cand se stinge lumina” and “Sasa, Grisa si Ion“, video links included) with great fondness. It was the earlier days of the internet and youtube when someone recommended them to me and, to this day, every time conversations turn to movies from Moldova, I chuckle. After missing out on the first feature film directed by Cobileanski, quite different from the darkly humorous tone of his shorts, Afacerea Est (English Title: Eastern Business) promised to be more of, let’s say it, his trademark style.

afacerea-est

A meek and naive music teacher Marian (‘intellectual’) is forced to team up with a harsh, rudimentary, yet world-wise fellow Petro (‘entrepreneur’) in order to settle a bizarre business deal involving horseshoes. Their simple trip to complete the transaction is rocked by the theft of Marian’s bag, which contained their documents and, more importantly, a wad of cash. So they’re off the train and hustling to reach the final destination, making money however they can – playing guitar and singing for donations, enlisting as helpers to a local politician or conning farmers during the peak of an Avian flu outbreak. And all of this, of course, for love – so that Marian can afford to wed his beloved, Veronica.

It’s a road trip/buddy comedy that works hard at portraying a reasonably faithful caricature of society in Moldova. Sometimes it’s overbearing how hard. The timing of events seems set in the mid 00s, but while technology has shaped the way some things work, the undertones are not as different as they should be. Judging by how the story unfolds and the themes poked at, there isn’t that much separating Romania from Moldova, only that the geopolitics exert different gravitational forces on the two.

The force holding the story of Marian and Petro together is that of deception. Everything almost everyone does is aimed at misleading someone in one way or another. What Cobileanski points out well is that we’re not faced with good and bad characters – although one might be inclined to look at Marian for the weak but positive hero of the tale, in contrast to Petro. Yet, both of them engage in the deceits and Cobileanski’s world is only segregated by size: small time crooks, big time crooks and very big time crooks. For all the hassle the protagonists go through, dealing with sums of money that appear significant, only upon meeting with their ‘client’ does scale begin to come into perspective.

The wild, wild East we’re being shown was pretty much the transition phase after the end of communism. It’s ‘doubleplus’ surreal set in Moldova, where the past and the present appear more intertwined. Cobileanski manages, at times, to really capture the irony and the foolishness of life in situational humour. Luckily, I was alone in the cinema and could laugh as hard as I felt like doing. However, there are also several scenes that come across quite flat or overly contrived, while language isn’t used as skillfully as a tool for irony. And not to nitpick, but even a couple of fools like Marian and Petro didn’t have to get off a train leading them to certain cash for a miserly stolen pouch.

All in all though, I’m glad that Afacerea Est is more of what Cobileanski promised with his first films. It’s not perfect, yet it’s good enough and presumably plays as a crazy adventure for someone not familiar with ‘the way things are done’ here.

***

Pozitia Copilului (2013): People at its Heart

Upon its release, I happened to catch a screening of the film (English title: Child’s Pose) attended by the director and some of the actors, followed by a short Q&A. This sort of effort is part of a greater plan to bring appraised Romanian films closer to the Romanian audience, while also creating an association with the people responsible for their success, more often than not “against the odds”.

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The story is set around a pampered man-child who ends up committing  a bit of involuntary vehicular manslaughter and his mother who works towards sorting out his predicament. What sets Netzer’s film apart from some of the other recent Romanian works of cinema is its sardonic humor which works best when it’s aimed at the characters and not at some of the pervasive practices of society. I’ve personally always felt that personal stories, meaning character stories, always came in second to some grand piece of social commentary, usually on the communist background of the country, in most of the acclaimed Romanian cinema of the 21st century. Not to say that such commentary lacks relevance, but there’s just more to modern life than its dark red heritage.

Of course, Pozitia Copilului is deeply rooted in antics which one could call symptomatic of Romania and as a means of characterization, the backdrop is justifiable. Occasionally though, when certain aspects come across a bit too hard pressed, they do a disservice to the otherwise excellent balance of a difficult story. This in no way undermines the beautifully detailed portrait of the film’s main character, a highly controlling, bossy, arrogant, mean-spirited mother. Her faults go quite a way to being redeemed by the passionate dedication with which she tries to protect her son, if one were to count such moral trade-offs. The ambivalence is so finely portrayed by Luminita Gheorghiu that both the moments of involuntary humor and the moments of pure drama work just as well.

It’s ironic that Mrs. Gheorghiu also played in “Moartea Domnului Lazarescu”, a film I found to be close at heart with “Pozitia Copilului”, in that it relies heavily on a complex central character and its critique is subtle, yet scathing. I’d go so far as to say that these kind of films, while still dominated by a type of post-modernist bleakness, can lead a shift of focus to the greater importance of characters as individuals in Romanian movies, not only as symbol stand-ins.

****

Originally published on imdb.

Sieranevada (2016): A Winter Wonderland

Although Romanian cinema has been ‘mainstreaming’ of late, this year has brought some old-school/new-school movies received to widespread critical acclaim, like Cristian Mungiu’s Bacalaureat (Graduation) or Bogdan Mirica’s Caini (Dogs). Both pictures, alongside Puiu’s Sieranevada, were premiered at Cannes and between them they picked up the Un Certain Regard prize (Dogs) and the best director prize (Mungiu). Interestingly enough, Sieranevada will be Romania’s push for the Academy Awards Foreign Film category, in spite of being the most demanding of the three movies.

sieranevada

At almost three hours’ breadth, preponderantly shot inside an apartment of fifty square meters and with more than ten characters coming together for a forty-day memorial service since the passing of the family’s patriarch, it amounts to a real-time experience of the event. There isn’t a lot of narrative to go about: we start with the oldest son, Lary, and his wife, Laura, dropping off some shopping and organizing the evening for their child, before setting off to the family apartment, where everyone else is gathering. In spite of being late, most guests arrive after them, until the apartment is overflowing with a heterogeneous, inter-generational group of people and their many opinions. The event takes place just around the Charlie Hebdo shooting, which sets the stage for a prolonged conspiracy theory discussion about 9/11. But seemingly countless topics are sprung to life, whether in the bedroom (the story of an abusive husband), in the kitchen (communism versus monarchy versus religion), in the small office (the memorial service traditions), the dining room (the convergence point for most discussions) or even the tight hallway (an inebriated stranger dropping in), from where we constantly pivot. We only escape the apartment once and, really, it makes you wish you were back inside, after a vicious public scene caused by a ridiculous triviality.

And so it goes on for most of its runtime, brimming with family tension, personal frustrations and everyday minutia. If anything, Sieranevada has no actual climax, but it elevates smalltalk to an art form, masterfully managing an engrossing and complex conversational ebb and flow between characters you struggle to familiarize yourself with. It will take quite a while to get to grips with who is who and how everyone is related, which is part of the reason why the movie is so demanding, requiring your attention throughout. But if you stay tough, you’ll figuratively be eating dinner with them by the end, as a member of this daunting family event.

Puiu creates a claustrophobic atmosphere within an oppressive, environment, whether inside or outside the apartment. To some degree, the viewer becomes attached to Lary, who leads us through the movie and mostly stays above the bickering and the conflicting undercurrents. He is a stoic figure and creates a sense of being the only ‘normal’ person in the room for most of the time, the adjudicator, in this fresco of the harrowing micro- and macrocosms of present-day Romanian society. The backdrop of the memorial service is decisive, because it sets the expectations of a sombre tone, yet the ensuing moments are anything but sombre. In essence, this contrast between excessive formalism and improvisational realism is the defining conflict of Sieranevada. It is also the cause for so much strife and malcontent in Romania, as we fail to either commit or compromise, feeding the urban anxiety of big-city life.

Still, this is not a movie for any time of day or any state of mind. The conversational authenticity is fascinating, but it wears you down, just like when you’re invited to a reunion with a bunch of strangers and sit silently in the corner. It makes you want to shout out, but you are too foreign to do so. The nearly 180 minutes it stretches over makes it hard to keep the momentum going at all times, with the last quarter suffering the most because of it. And with all the arising themes, you will need at least some understanding of Romanian clichés and history to get on board quickly.

Overall, however, I feel it is worth the time, because Sieranevada feels true. It’s a bit of a nightmare, sure, but it also manages to find and weave its story with quality fabric, highlighting meaningful contrasts between society, family and the individual and their ‘forced’ cohabitation. And it is ostensibly a universal story about the inner workings of family life, a hardcore version of movies like Margot at the Wedding or August: Osage County. With any luck, you will also share in Lary’s laughter at the end.

****

Moartea domnului Lazarescu (2005): A Hellish Ride

God, I know it’s a terrible thing to say, but I really loved Moartea domnului Lazarescu (The Death of Mister Lazarescu). It was such an accomplished transition for Cristi Puiu, from his earlier works like the 2001 movie Marfa si banii (with the unappealing English title: Stuff and Dough) or his slice of life short Un cartus de Kent si un pahar de cafea (Coffee and Cigarettes). And while I have yet to see this year’s promising Sierranevada, Lazarescu is, to me, the perfect career highlight for Puiu, before he became overindulgent with the time-sprawling nature of his work.

moartea dl lazarescu

So, Mr. Lazarescu: nearing 63, lives alone with his three cats, underwent surgery due to ulcer, has a sister still living in Romania and a daughter who left (it seems) unannounced and moved to Canada. This is the man: old, alone and ill. A terrible fate.

Puiu’s movie, inspired by true events (some years ago, a man was transported from one hospital to the other with a most tragic consequence) follows its protagonist through the final stages of his life: feeling ill, Lazarescu calls for an ambulance and awaits its (delayed) arrival drinking and making telephone calls. As the hands of the clock turn and the ambulance is nowhere to be heard or seen, the old man goes next door, trying to get some help from the neighbors: a stereotype of their kind. Once the ambulance finally arrives, Lazarescu embarks on a most dreadful road trip, from hospital to hospital, in an elaborate attempt to diagnose and operate him. The story begins.

It would be unfair not to acknowledge the film’s authenticity from the outset. Truly segmented – as the director himself affirmed, regarding “Lazarescu” as the first in six stories about the Romanian capital – in several (short) “stories of Bucharest”, we meet most intriguing characters and situations, each of them highly rewarding on different levels. Good doctors, bad doctors, grumpy doctors, snobbish doctors, pitiful doctors – all the guys and girls our great medical system can offer. Still, some continue to resemble human beings, which – to a certain degree – is quite an achievement.

The bad light Puiu sheds on them may be diminished by the fact that the night Lazarescu chose to fall ill was most unfortunate: a terrible car accident filled most of the hospitals so that it was extremely difficult to find a place for an old, drunk man who was automatically labeled as a drinker and treated as such. Few characters in the film show authentic sympathy for Lazarescu, as most of them just want to get on with the job and do themselves a greater good. There is no such concept of readiness to help a fellow man struggling between life and death: commodity reigns. Unlike Lazarus, our main character will most probably not rise from the dead. And the people who still stand and didn’t give their everything are up to their throats in guilt.

But this is the terrible, depressing half of the story. A most regretful reality. Cristi Puiu’s and Razvan Radulescu’s (a bit overlong) script is at times filled with moments of sheer irony, sarcasm and cynicism, all worth their laughs. Some of these moments are brilliant. Lazarescu is witty and gutsy, as long as he can talk. He is a man who – despite what others think – wants to stand up for himself and would rather not let anyone treat him like scum. Sadly, though, all is part of a gigantic vicious circle: doctors remain people and patients are not at all different. Flawed. Yet, there is a question of humanity and dignity involved. A choice between what is right and what is easy, as the saying goes – and my favourite Romanian new wave film.

*****

Originally published on imdb.

Cinema, mon amour (2015): Or Existential Limbo

As a topic for contemplation, the decay and dissolution of the Romanian landscape of movie theaters runs deep. Once a sort of burgeoning socialist arrangement for communist propaganda, less than ten percent of the theaters functional before the 1989 Revolution are still in use today. I wrote about this a while back, in my timely reflections on our local “retro” cinema, Timis. In larger cities, these have been replaced by multiplexes, a convenient mixture of commercialism and, often, more commercialism. These are, at least, solid venues to go to and enjoy a movie every now and again.

cinema mon amour.png

Cinema, mon amour is an ode to times gone by, relating to multiplexes like an art-house picture to a blockbuster. It tells the tale of Cinema Dacia and its manager, Victor Purice, a seemingly passionate and expansive individual. With limited support from the owners of past state-run cinemas, Romania Film, he, alongside the staff of two (maybe three) of the cinema, do their best to keep the movies running in Piatra Neamt. The documentary doesn’t so much build a story arc, as it tries to be an exploration of need and improvisation. As such, we mostly follow Purice around in his day to day duties and musings, in somewhat too fervent of an admiration for the man to feel at ease. But the fact remains that Dacia is an exception rather than the rule, to some degree due to the personal efforts of Mr. Purice.

There are fascinating moments throughout Cinema, mon amour – usually details, more than overt exposition elements. For example, the staff of the cinema takes a lunch break at one point and you see them use movie posters as table cloth. Or as Mr. Purice is explaining one thing or another inside the projection room, the walls are filled not only with traditional posters (Speed seems to have been particularly popular), but also with playboy-esque centrefolds. Moreover, the level of improvisation required to keep the location running is equally fascinating and disturbing. It’s a matter of folklore that Romanians are great at “making whip out of crap”, but Cinema, mon amour really captures the essence of it as Mr. Purice creates a make-shift heating installation under the seating arrangement – a health and safety red flag if there ever was one. But it works, and alongside another heater, blankets and hot tea, the cinema keeps running through the harsh winters of Eastern Romania.

The documentary ultimately portrays a failing business, yet never takes the time to question this matter much. It stays romantic all the way through, not once really delving into why there is no niche in Romania for local cinemas (hell, for local culture in general). It’s something worth discussing, because there is interest in movies and there’s even interest in some less mainstream movies – this very projection took place at a festival showing such pictures and you’ll find weekly movie screenings in cafes and pubs throughout the city (all free entry, though). Looking beyond these macro-issues, I would suggest that most local cinemas like Dacia fail not only because of their decrepit infrastructure, but because they are stuck in time. The movies they show often target similar audiences to the multiplexes and the staff, as portrayed here as well, have been working in the same places for decades. Most of these cinemas don’t only feel cold, they are cold – and lifeless. Having frequently visited a local cinema in my hometown, run by the same company, the borderline untenable conditions are similar, yet I have never seen an authority figure outside the two joyless cashiers.

Mr. Purice, who seems to make some difference in Piatra Neamt, is a solitary figure. More so, while there are some endearing moments, the over-reliance on his charisma wore me out by the end of the documentary. And certain scenes feel off, like one in which he returns from a visit to a cinema in Germany, apparently ready to give up, accepting the futility of it all, only to argue himself out of it in the spirit of unity with his passive and subservient staff. Perhaps I’m being harsh, but I felt Mr. Purece to be rather condescending and overbearing, whichever his other merits might be.

My cynicism notwithstanding, Cinema, mon amour is a story I do care for very much. It does not flesh out its subject matter enough and bets the house on how its ‘lead’ will appeal to the viewer, yet it also has enough character to be authentic and relevant. The ideal meta experience, of course, is to watch the movie at Cinema Dacia – so there it is, a goal for life.

***

Ilegitim (2016): A Difficult Tread

It feels like skewering Illegitimate would be too easy at times. The gist of the movie, which is pretty clear if you’ve either read a synopsis or seen the poster, is that two siblings (twins) indulge in an intimate relationship with one another, which leads to a not quite desired pregnancy. However, this only truly unfolds in the second half of Illegitimate, as the first builds this dysfunctional family and conjures up some context for the less than traditional romantic alignment.

ilegitim

The ample first scene, setting the stage, is a celebratory dinner. Romeo (Romi) has just finished his studies and the whole family is gathered: father Victor, twin sister Sasha, older siblings Gilda and Cosma, as well as the partners of the latter two, Bogdan and Julie. As the father presents an expose on how time dictates our understanding of life and everyone indulges in drink and the occasional retort, the tables are suddenly turned when Victor is asked whether, in his role as a doctor, he informed to the communist state police on women who wanted to get abortions – an illegal procedure before 1989. The answer is, in a nutshell, yes. Cue Ron Burgundy, as the situation escalates dramatically, Sasha and Romi become verbally aggressive towards Victor, he ends up fighting with Cosma, while Gilda tries meekly and helplessly to stop the madness.

It’s this kind of chaos that Illegitimate draws its energy from and tries to shape into a complicated discourse about the patriarchy, generational conflict, personal v class morality, women’s rights and abortion. While the effort can be appreciated, the movie is not disciplined enough to pull it off convincingly. You’ve got thin character development, characters whose only role is to advance the plot, a strange attempt at levity involving a hamster, your lead bearing the awful name of Romeo, some ill-timed dramatic close ups, which are all tied up with a neat little bow in a sub-par ending. Also, for a movie that deals about incest and abortion, in a country as secular as Romania, the matter barely comes up.

While this might all read rather damningly, there is enough coherence to go around and the artificial constructions are not overly intrusive; they probably just bugged me more than usual. Most of all, Alina Grigore’s portrayal of Sasha is fascinatingly convincing at times, even if the script can leave her little to work with. She’s passionate, restrained, compassionate, principled – but lost, a kind of contrast that comes across powerfully and draws you in. And the story conveys this tactfully, it allows the viewer to infer how overwhelming the recent loss of her (their) mother had been, how this is what has driven them so close together. The pace at which the movie unfolds also works in its favour, keeping it tight and eventful.

The movie’s greatest fault lies in its tonal disharmony, as the more emotionally demanding scenes tend to descend into melodrama. While this eases some of the potentially overbearing tension stemming from its heavy subject matter, it also undermines the otherwise caustic build-up. Paradoxically, Illegitimate still works in spite of its self-indulgence – it’s an entertaining story of how a family implodes. It simply fails to punch as high as it aims to do.

***

Autobiografia lui Nicolae Ceausescu (2010): The Spectacular Reality of Nicolae Ceausescu

Having been born at the end of the 80s, my recollection of communist Romania is negligible. So for me, this wealth of archival footage represents less an excursion into dreary eyed nostalgia, but rather a fascinating, vicarious experience. It is unfathomable to think that this is a part of our human heritage, and the film leaves the impression of being a document of society, culture and politics that’s out of this world.
autobiografia-lui-nicolae-ceausescu

This other-worldliness is achieved through the exclusive use of archival footage, to the detriment of any present-day commentary. The biographical tale of Ceausescu leads us through several decades of communist Romania, and is bound by the trial and execution of the former dictator. Surprisingly, although my knowledge of recent Romanian history is fairly limited, there was little actual information in the the events and moments portrayed which I was unfamiliar with. I’m not sure that’s a good thing, for such a long runtime – all it says, to me, is that you should probably not watch this documentary if your aim is solely to gain a straightforward understanding of history.

What it does do very well, is synthesize the essence of what the public frame of mind was at the time. It ebbs and flows beautifully, from the fascination of the Western world with Ceausescu after his stance on the invasion of Prague, to his ultimate isolation within the communist block. In this, as well as in much of the propagandistic materials made for public consumption, there is a strong sense of falsehood meshed together with a (willing) naivety of the everyday folk. The film is at its best when it manages to effectively contain these paradoxes of truth, the double-standards of pre-89 communist dogma, and the absurdity of turning a mildly charismatic, semi-literate individual into an egomaniac with absolute power.

In between all these moments, you’ve got Ceausescu delving into sheer silliness – with the cherry on top being his speech on how Romania will only return to capitalism when “pigs fly”, then joking on the advances of genetics only to realize this is not quite the right thing to say and reinforcing the initial statement with raised pitch and ample gesticulation. There are many scenes like this, of various sizes, that shape Ceausescu as a character and the warped world-view provided by public television. At three hours, one could argue the documentary is overlong, as certain elements become repetitive. One can also argue that in their repetitiveness, these elements bear different meanings, according to the wider context of their occurrence, sort of a seasonal aspect of the biographical story.

Whichever way you look at it, there is so much to see and experience in Andrei Ujica’s film, that you are guaranteed to not be left indifferent by it.

****

Originally posted on imdb.

Bacalaureat (2016): Defying Compromise

Films rarely put forward leading characters that they then choose to vehemently punish throughout. But this is Mungiu, who has already proved more than adept at creating authentic and ruthless portrayals of society and in Bacalaureat (English title: Graduation) he scrapes at the edges of our souls. His tale of generational change is predicated on the dismantling of a profoundly patriarchal state of being. To this purpose, he crafts a story of remarkable complexity and depth, which cuts across so many layers, that taking them apart would be counterproductive.

graduation
In short: Eliza is sexually assaulted one day before her ‘bacalaureat’, the final set of high-school exams students sit in Romania. She had been awarded a conditional scholarship at a university in the UK, but her impairment, both mental and physical, poses a threat to her getting the grades she needs. Cue in the father, Romeo, a local doctor, whose life is about to encounter quite the upheaval in his desire to ensure Eliza fulfills his own botched ‘destiny’ of leaving the country. Things take a turn for the complicated as he is more or less inadvertently offered an opportunity to guarantee the results his daughter needs. The circuit of corruption is as informal as it is intricate – a friend of a friend situation, one hand washes the other kind of thing. And beyond all this mess, Romeo also has to keep up the facade of his marriage, while dating a single mother, Sandra, who happens to be a teacher at Eliza’s high-school.

What makes Bacalaureat instantly and distinctively good is the attention to detail, which breeds both familiarity and authenticity. But unlike Mungiu’s previous major success, 4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days, the grimness does not stem from the subject matter, or the dry (non-)stylization of the story, but from how intertwined the many strands of this one case prove to be. Shadowing the father along it is painful because his shortcomings are obvious from afar. But it is his demise that is so important to ensure a new generation comes along which will set itself apart from the current one. He is tragic, because not only can he not escape his destiny, but he doesn’t recognize his role in propagating that which he abhors. Romeo’s willingness to compromise in order to ensure his daughter’s chance of being the change he desires is part of the hereditary disease plaguing any such social construction.

Taking a wider view, it isn’t coincidental that every moral- institutional junction is safeguarded by a man – a doctor, a police officer, a former mayoral figure, a school commissioner, a prosecutor. Contrasting this are the female characters, the strength of Eliza, the stoicism of Sandra, the wisdom of Romeo’s wife, Magda. It’s a battle of utilitarian and deontological ethics, posing the question of whether moral pragmatism can be moral at all. There is little doubt where Mungiu sides, as the male ‘keywardens’ are at least one of: cynical, unfeeling, self-serving, hypocritical. Masculine instincts are both highlighted (‘it wasn’t a rape, it was just a sexual assault!’) and criticized. Even as it seems that a pair of male characters come along that are understanding and humane, there is a strong pinch of self-interest that dictates terms, which is why they are punished with a fine ironic touch by the director.

For all that happens, there are two scenes which summarize the journey we are on. Firstly, when ‘someone’ (life?) throws a stone at the apartment Romeo’s family is living in, thereby breaking a window, he rushes out confidently, as if finding the culprit were a matter of when, rather than if. Then, towards the end of the film, as Romeo’s life unravels by the virtue of his poor choices, he decides to venture after the assumed perpetrator of the assault on his daughter; now, however, he loses the trail instantly, finds himself wandering confused in the shadows of apartment buildings, jumping at every unexpected noise coming his way. The grip, the control over how society is run, ever loosening.

If anything, I would criticize Mungiu for being overly and overtly moralistic. There are several moments where characters are used as props to portray said moral perspectives, scenes which feel artificial and pedagogically pedantic. Also, the bureaucratic coldness conveyed by almost all officials (one moment dictating an official statement concerning Eliza’s rape, the next discussing trivialities) feels uninspiring by now – there is a sense that themes are contained within a national frame, that our sole focus is alleviating the burdens of the past, more than the challenges of the present. And although this is hinted at during the film, the matter of exam fraud was as rooted as it is illustrated here about ten years ago, when I myself was finishing high-school. Hence, it feels against the times in a way, but then this can also be viewed as the last vestiges of an era, Romeo’s solution being retrograde especially in such a light.

Bickering aside, creating such a complex and highly integrated story that feels true to itself almost all the way is quite splendid indeed. It’s not an easy ride for viewers, who will suffer the pain of compromise, of systemic contortion against the individual – ultimately, Romeo has good intentions, the world just seems to require of him to do what he does, to right a wrong with a wrong. Yet, it remains the individual that decides, which is why the ‘bacalaureat’ is such an important stepping stone for change and for maturity. Mungiu’s film is a comment on the precipice we are finding ourselves on now, where we see the change more clearly, are even enacting it, but it is the follow-up that will define us as a people, as a generation. Funnily enough, he proves to be an optimist.

L.E. And he also own the distinguished Cannes prize in 2016 for best director.

*****

Chuck Norris vs. Communism (2015): A Nostalgia Soufflé

In spite of being born towards the end of the 80s, I recall several “Margareta Nistor movies”, her trademark dubbing scarring my youth alongside the zombies of Return of the Living Dead. It’s funny, particularly because her often inflection-less voice made the humor of the movie much harder to understand at the time. Then again, maybe that had more to do with me being less than a decade old myself and thinking I might be immune to the undead.
Chuck-Norris-vs-CommunismAt its heart, CNvsC is a film about the passion of movies. During communist Romania, in the especially dire last ten years of Ceausescu’s reign, an illicit business venture involving the dubbing, copying and distributing of Western cinema spawned and spread like wildfire in what became a cultural landmark of the times. Rocky, Missing in Action, Once Upon a Time in America, Bloodsport, Dirty Dancing are just some of the many movies featured. Using current day interviews with both the protagonists of the movement (foremost Mrs. Nistor as the “localization” specialist, Mr. Zamfir as the ambivalent VHS peddler) and Romanian personalities, as well as laborious reenactments of key events, director Calugareanu portrays the dichotomous fear/love relationship of treading the anti-establishment line. At its best, the film is humorous and playful, insightful with a dark edge in exploring the oppressive machinations behind the scenes. While hyperbolizing, it sets itself up as a thoroughly enjoyable ode to a movement that played a part in empowering the Romanian people.

But the causation is forced and based on weak evidence. The urge to make such a powerful claim and even the attempts of dramatizing certain events play against what CNvsC is really strong at: highlighting the cultural impact and the adventurous affairs surrounding a seemingly banal act of translation. What it fails to do is look beyond the immediate effects of the whole process and the romance of movies as an escape from the everyday. Questions like how the exposure to a fairly homogeneous body of films affected Romanians’ world-view, especially given that most of the films were not quite paragons of Western film-making, is not tackled. Nor is the matter of how the practice of what essentially is piracy contributed to a certain cultural acceptance of digital duplication in decades to come, as seen across the Eastern block. At the screening, Nistor mentioned that she had met her counter-parts from Estonia or Russia, who were different to her only in that they were all men.

So, while on the one hand the documentary works as a look into a pretty special phenomenon, it is frustrating that it avoids going deeper into either the social ramifications, or further exploring the more personal experiences of the likes of Mrs. Nistor to let the local interpretations take hold of an otherwise too descriptive approach – aimed to a more universal audience, with little knowledge of Romanian oddities.

***

Originally posted on imdb.