Director/Coscreenwriter: Radu Muntean
By Marilyn Ferdinand
It has been more than 20 years since the Romanian people overthrew Communist dictator Nicolae Ceauşescu and then began jettisoning the privations, both physical and psychological, of repression. Romania’s economy expanded rapidly in the 2000s, and it joined the European Union in 2007. During this time, a burgeoning group of filmmakers called the Romanian New Wave started wowing audiences around the world, with Cristian Mungiu’s searing drama 4 Months, 3 Weeks, & 2 Days walking off with the Palme d’Or at the 2007 Cannes Film Festival.
The first wave of Romanian New Wave films were preoccupied with life under Ceauşescu, but as filtered through the personal. Even The Paper Will Be Blue, a 2006 film by Radu Muntean, the director of Tuesday, After Christmas, that bases its story around a militia unit, shows the familial and friendly ties that bind the unit together. Now Muntean has returned with a full-on domestic drama that has left behind communism and moved on to life under capitalism, examining what happens to people who no longer have to struggle to meet their needs and now have the luxury of pursuing their wants.
The film opens with a scene of bourgeois decadence that would have turned Ceauşescu’s hair blue. Paul Hanganu (Mimi Brănescu) and Raluca (Maria Popistaşu) are lolling naked in bed, engaging in pillow talk and random fondling. Only a small bit of dialogue indicates that the pair may not be married; in response to a question Raluca asks about his daughter Mara (Saşa Paul-Szel), Paul says “we haven’t decided yet.”
Indeed, Paul, a bank loan officer in his 40s, is married to Adriana (Mirela Oprişor), an attorney, and Mara is 9 years old and in her “pink” phase. They are a very ordinary family living in a style that befits their professional class. They have everyday conversations and make everyday plans for the upcoming Christmas holiday. Shopping for a snowboard for Mara, they insist on getting one that is too big for her because the right-size one has a skeleton painted on it; they wouldn’t consider not getting her the present she asked for.
Paul’s affair is well hidden from Adriana, even though he thinks about little else and complains about time Raluca has set aside in the coming weeks to spend with her mother. All that changes when despite Paul’s attempts to dissuade her, Adriana insists on meeting him at the dentist’s, where Mara is being fitted for temporary braces. Naturally, Raluca is the dentist. Perhaps the lovers met over Mara’s teeth, or perhaps he’s just throwing business her way as an act of love and trust. He’ll come to regret his largesse, as Adriana questions the necessity for the appliance and then scrutinizes Raluca as she works to get an impression of Mara’s teeth. Raluca beats a hasty retreat to her mother’s, determined, she tells Paul when he follows her there, to end their affair. Instead, Paul comes clean to Adriana and says he wants to be with Raluca. They spend one last, tense Christmas together at Paul’s parents’ home, decide when they’ll tell Mara and their families about their split, and close the film listening to some offscreen carolers in the foyer after Paul has placed the Christmas presents hidden from Mara under the tree.
Films of family collapse are frequently set during the holidays, for when else is harmony more demanded, and when more do we feel we deserve to give ourselves a present. This particular collapse revolves around Paul’s wants. Unwilling to be separated from Raluca, he simply follows her, forces her disapproving mother (Carmen Lopăzan) to ask him into her home when he can’t reach Raluca on her cellphone, returns home after feeling confident that Raluca wants to be with him to tell Adriana he’s in love and wants out, and then moves directly into Raluca’s small apartment. Adriana’s meltdown includes telling him that he’ll never see Mara again and to “get her to make you another one,” only to hear him say “I don’t know if I want that.” Raluca is 26 and may want children, but that doesn’t seem to figure into Paul’s thinking. And when I saw him move through her apartment, frowning at and straightening her unmade bed and throwing her scattered clothes to the side to make room for a wardrobe his cohort in midlife crisis Cristi (Dragoş Bucur) comes over to assemble, I saw a bad end to the relationship. Although Raluca seems to be with Paul as part of a daddy fixation—her father is absent from the picture—she’ll soon outgrow her need to be bossed around.
The very cliché of this story and the unlikeability of all of the main characters seem to me to be a critique of how Romania is squandering its potential following liberation. In Catalin Mitulescu’s The Way I Spent the End of the World (2006), the bravery of the Romanian people on the cusp of freedom is highlighted, with optimism for a better future clearly signaled in its final flash-forward. However, Muntean seems more in tune with Romania’s hidden antagonisms and betrayals, amusingly signaled when Cristi finds a DVD of Corneliu Porumboiu’s 12:08 East of Bucharest (2006) in Raluca’s apartment, a film in which disreputable characters seek to define courage exactly and one that shows great skepticism about those who are making money and getting ahead.
Still, please don’t get the idea that this film only works on a macro level. Muntean’s extreme facility with a camera creates a hothouse atmosphere in which nearly every frame is filled from edge to edge with people, frequently in pairs or trios. We are always on top of these characters, enveloped in their drama, aware of their every discomfort. The actors are, without exception, very skilled—every interaction feels very, uncomfortably real. The confrontation between Adriana and Paul swirls believably through shock and anger, with Adriana imagining lurid sexual details to distance herself from someone telling her he doesn’t want her anymore. The disposability of human relationships—divorce increases in prosperous times—is a concept Romanians are encountering with more frequency; it’s one Americans know about all too well. (Still it’s better than poisoning one’s unwanted spouse.) Freedom is a great thing, but Tuesday, After Christmas cautions that it has its own pitfalls. I look forward to seeing the new Romania continue to develop through the films of its great cinematic artists.
Tuesday, After Christmas has no more screenings, but may be shown during Best of the Fest. All screenings take place at the AMC River East 21 Theatres, 322 E. Illinois St.
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