Director/Co-Screenwriter: Catalin Mitulescu
2008 European Union Film Festival
By Marilyn Ferdinand
The 11th Annual European Union Film Festival at the Gene Siskel Film Center kicked off last Friday without me due to my own personal version of March Madness. Fortunately, the festival runs nearly a full month, showcasing this year 61 films from 26 EU nations. One of the hottest centers for cinema today is Romania. Two knockout films from the past two years, The Death of Mr. Lazarescu and 4 Months, 3 Weeks, & 2 Days, took the top prize at the Chicago International Film Festival and the Cannes Film Festival, respectively, and in the process, sent Romania screaming onto the radar screen. Giving Romania the official stamp of approval for the Western world, so to speak, Wim Wenders and Martin Scorsese were the executive producers of The Way I Spent the End of the World, director Catalin Mitulescu’s first full-length feature film. They backed a director with a promising future who has made an assured, layered film that mixes small-town life with politics under the communist dictatorship of Nicolae Ceausecu.
The film opens in a grade school where all the children are begging to be picked to be in a ceremony. Seven-year-old Lalalilu Matei (Timotei Duma) is grabbed by the school principal and set on the stage, ready to receive an honor for the school from the government. Three men in uniforms approach him with a very large round of something—maybe cheese or bread—but the leader learns that Lalalilu still has some baby teeth. In an act of complete ridiculousness, the official wrestles with Lalalilu for the round.
Switch to the Matei home. Lalalilu ties a string around his tooth, but can’t bring himself to pull it out. He goes to breakfast with the string hanging from his mouth. Mother Maria (Carmen Ungureanu) sets a meager breakfast of bread, cheese, and jam for Lalalilu and his 17-year-old sister Eva (Doroteea Petre) before they head off to school. Lalalilu refuses to eat. Maria, not a very forceful mother, tells Eva to get him to eat. Eva is more strict, but in the end she smiles and plays with him to eat. She tempts him with jam for his bread and when he finally opens his mouth to bite it, Eva grabs the string and pulls out the loose tooth. Lalalilu is surprised but grateful. The pair is obviously very devoted, and Eva seems to have taken over the larger part of mothering her little brother.
Eva meets her boyfriend Alex (Ionut Becheru) in the halls of their high school. He tries to persuade her to cut class so that they can spend some time together. She doesn’t, but he makes her late. The class sings the national anthem and prepares for the first lesson. Just then, Alex comes in and informs Comrade Teacher that the principal would like to see Eva. He has the official armband of a hall monitor on. Eva leaves, Alex gives the armband to the real monitor, and the lovers hide in an empty room to neck. Alex, kickboxing around her, asks Eva if she loves him. She says, “very much.” He then says, “Then why don’t we do it?” She thinks about it, and then says she will. In his joy, he kicks a pedestal holding a plaster bust of Ceausecu, and it falls to the floor and breaks.
Alex is questioned, but escapes punishment. When Eva is brought in front of her classmates, she is defiant. Her entire family is against the discipline imposed on the country by the communist regime. Her classmates, including a cowed Alex, vote to kick her out of the communist youth party because of her attitude, and she is sent to reform school. There, she spends time with a new neighbor of the Matei’s, a young man named Andrei (Cristian Vararu) whose father was arrested for political agitation. This she does to spite her faithless boyfriend.
Underlying these everyday events is a strong hatred of Ceausecu. The poverty and hardship are all around. Alex’s father (Grigor Gonta) is a policeman who does favors for the Mateis because of Eva. When Eva breaks up with Alex, her parents urge her to get back with him and stop hanging out with a known subversive. “His father does favors for us,” says Maria, including getting medical care for the perpetually sick Lalalilu. Eva, however, is strong-willed. She decides to go with Andrei in his planned escape from Romania across the Danube. When she disappears, Lalalilu determines to kill Ceausecu for making her unhappy.
In between are the many episodes that make up small-town life. Folk customs simply shown, such as cutting a boy’s top-knot of hair on his first birthday or seeing what object he picks up to determine what his future career will be, are fascinating to watch. The film is filled with the characters particular to any small town: the retarded old man Bulba (Corneliu Tigancu), who entertains Lalalilu and his two friends by making the sounds of trains and cars; grandfather Titi, who refuses to sit with Alex and his father when they show up at his grandson’s first birthday and, instead, strips down to his underwear and starts putting sheet aluminum on his roof; the music teacher in the reform school (Valentin Popescu), who seems utterly bored with his students but works them very hard to perfect a patriotic song (perhaps his show of resistance); Uncle Florica (Jean Constantin), who decides to burn his car to celebrate the overthrow of the dictatorship.
The revolution—the “end of the world”—is a fascinating part of this film. Up until it actually happens, we are kept on the fringes of revolt, learning only of successful and failed escape attempts and rumors of political activity. However, all the town watches the ceremony at which Ceausecu’s overthrow begins because Lalalilu is scheduled to read a poem of thanks to the dictator himself—his plot to get close enough to the man to kill him with his slingshot. Watching the villagers watch the revolution on TV was both a great and sad reminder of all the events I and countless other people around the world have watched this way.
The film ends by subtly showing how things have improved in Romania. On the Matei kitchen counter are several packages of food previously unavailable. Maria comes home, presumably from work that was nonexistent before, wearing a smart, new outfit. Alex’s father has been reintegrated into the town and learned how to make the sounds Bulba makes. Lalalilu doesn’t get sick anymore. And he and Eva remain close, even as she has set off on a new adventure. That adventure, it seems, is the blossoming of a new Romania.