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Director/Coscreenwriter: Radu Muntean
2016 European Union Film Festival
By Marilyn Ferdinand
The opening scene of master Romanian filmmaker Radu Muntean’s new film, One Floor Below, is deceptively simple. Sandu Patrascu (Teodor Corban) is in a Bucharest park running off some extra pounds and throwing sticks for his dog, Jerry, to retrieve. Their play is interrupted when Sandu hears someone tell another man to put his dog on a leash; the dog is aggressive and could tear another dog apart. Sandu steps over to meet the barking dog and says, “I used to have a pit bull like that,” to which the dog’s master responds, “So you’ve got yourself a teddy bear now.” Sandu replies that “it was a bargain,” but what kind and with whom remain a mystery. In this one brief scene, Muntean has laid out the personality of his central character, a man whose darker instincts and need for self-protection under the repressive Communist regime have abated, but not disappeared.
Of all of the great filmmakers who formed the Romanian New Wave, Muntean is perhaps my favorite. He has found an understated, seemingly effortless technique for combining the personal and the political in a way that illuminates both. He dramatized in a surprisingly leisurely style the behavior of a small group of soldiers and some ordinary people on the extraordinary day in 1989 when dictator Nicolae Ceauşescu was overthrown in The Paper Will Be Blue (2006) that brought the absurdity and tragedy of those lost years into laser focus. His portrayal of a disintegrating marriage in Tuesday, After Christmas (2010) offered a probing look at the emotional violence that simmered under the surface of the newly free country. With One Floor Below, we gain insight into the effects of the police state on the Romanian people and the still-yawning gulf of misunderstanding that lingers.
Sandu, his wife Olga (Oxana Moravec), and their son Matei (Ionut Bora) are a modern happy family. Sandu and Olga run a business together helping people cut through the red tape of vehicle registration and licensing and share parental concern and responsibilities for their precocious 12-year-old son, who, of course, spends most of his time playing video games and posting online. They host a small family gathering to celebrate the birthday of Sandu’s mother (Tatiana Iekel), and Sandu gathers regularly with his buddies to watch sports on TV—one night, when they seem distracted, Olga threatens to change the channel to “Romania’s Got Talent.”
Sadly for Sandu, he has the misfortune to return to his apartment building while his unseen first-floor neighbor, Laura (Maria Popistasu), is arguing with a man inside her apartment about a trip she is taking with her sister to Italy. Instead of going straight up the stairs to his home on the third floor, he listens at the door. Just then, the man emerges; it is his married second-floor neighbor, Valentin Dima (Iulian Postelnico). Sandu hurries away. The next day, Laura is found dead in her apartment. When the police come by to investigate, Sandu mentions nothing of the argument.
It’s not hard to sympathize with Sandu. He has a great life after years of deprivation, and all he wants to do is get on with it. He never asked to be involved in a murder investigation—he only knew Laura to say hello to, after all—but here he is sitting on some explosive information. Worse, Dima seems to be going out of his way to get close to Sandu and his family, asking Sandu to help change the registration on his car, playing video games with Matei, offering Matei and Olga advice on how to upgrade their computer system, even accepting a plate of food from Olga. What’s his game? Why won’t he give Sandu his wish and go away?
One Floor Below interrogates the secrets and lies that grease the wheels of every society. In the context of a repressive society, it’s not hard to imagine Sandu and people like him listening in on private conversations, if not to inform the secret police, then to ensure they avoid associating with people who could prove dangerous to them. It’s also reasonable to assume that Sandu would be reluctant to share information with the police out of simple conditioning. Corban had me believing in Sandu’s goodness through his carefully built signs of a guilty conscience. Sandu loses his appetite, defends Laura’s honor to his friends who assume she was a slut who got what she deserved based on nothing but their need to gossip and have an answer to her murder, and mumbles painful condolences when he runs into Laura’s sister, also played by Popistasu, trying to get inside Laura’s mailbox.
But he is also timid, a man who could lose the confidence of his neighbors and the clients on whom he relies for his living if he “turns informer” to tell the truth of what he heard. Muntean is careful to show the extent of the bureaucracy that envelops even something as benign as the department of motor vehicles. Romania may not be a dictatorship anymore, and secret police may not be around every dark corner, but the mechanics of that society are still in place. Nobody of a certain age—certainly not Sandu—has forgotten, and it is the silence that results from living in such conditions that intrigues Dima, a young man who would have been a mere child when Ceauşescu’s regime fell.
Of course, it’s hard to forget that this kind of conspiracy of silence is exactly what allowed the atrocities of Ceauşescu, Stalin, Hitler, and many others to begin and continue. Despite our sympathy for Sandu, we can’t forget that self-interest is to blame for so much injustice in the world. Perhaps justice for one woman isn’t worth misery for an entire family. Perhaps the police will find the killer anyway. The brief catharsis that Sandu experiences feels good for him and for us, but the ultimate price may prove to be too high. As Romania continues to build as a nation, Muntean offers its people thought-provoking scenarios through which to build their social conscience as well.
One Floor Below screens Sunday, March 20 at 5:30 p.m. and Thursday, March 24 at 6 p.m. at the Gene Siskel Film Center, 164 N. State St.
Latin Lover: Director/coscreenwriter Cristina Comencini pays tribute to the glories of matinee idol worship in this hilarious tale of an Italian screen star who has slept his way across Europe and the United States and the jealousies and camaraderie of the lovers and children he’s left in his wake. (Italy)
How to Stop a Wedding: A smart script and committed acting elevate a simple story of two jilted lovers sharing a train compartment who find out they are both planning to stop the same wedding. (Sweden)
Anton Chekhov 1890: The final directorial effort of René Féret surveys six years in the life of Russian writer Anton Chekhov in the naturalist style Chekhov helped introduce to the modern world. (France)
Home Care: A home health nurse finds out she needs care every bit as much as her patients in this rueful look at small-town life and middle-age regret. (Czech Republic)
Forbidden Films: Free speech is debated in this somewhat crude documentary look at Nazi-era films that have been banned from public viewing. (Germany)
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Director/Screenwriter: Corneliu Porumboiu
2015 Chicago International Film Festival
By Marilyn Ferdinand
One of the brightest stars of the Romanian New Wave is Corneliu Porumboiu. His 2006 feature debut, 12:08 East of Bucharest, is a dead-on comic critique of finger-pointing at the dawn of Romania’s release from communist oppression and dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu. In the years since, Romania joined the European Union, in fact, only one year before the economic meltdown of 2008. The EU and financial hardships that afflict modern Romanians and their response to them are the themes Porumboiu examines in The Treasure.
Costi (Toma Cuzin) is a hard-working civil servant living in Bucharest with his wife Raluca (Cristina Cuzin Toma) and 6-year-old son Alin (Nicodim Toma). As the film opens, Alin is sitting alongside Costi in the family car scolding his father for being late to pick him up. Although he acknowledges that Costi is almost never late and that heavy traffic delayed him, Alin is still upset because he thought Costi did it on purpose and that he told Alin a story about trying to save people like Robin Hood, Alin’s favorite fictional character, to try to smooth things over. Costi apologizes.
That evening, Costi is reading The Adventures of Robin Hood to Alin for the umpteenth time when his neighbor, Adrian (Adrian Purcaresco), asks to see him. Adrian, recently unemployed from a lucrative job, is far behind on his mortgage interest payments and about to lose his house. In desperation, he wants Costi to loan him 800 euros so that he can hire a metal detector to locate treasure said to have been buried by his great-grandfather on the grounds of his family’s country estate in Islaz; Adrian offers to split the take 50/50. Costi has to manage his money carefully to pay his bills each month and tells Adrian that he can’t help. However, the idea worms its way into his mind, and with Raluca’s belief that the story could be true—Islaz was the site of the Wallachian Revolution of 1848 that was bankrolled by some wealthy families—he scrapes together enough money to hire Cornel (Corneliu Cozemi) to scan the grounds.
The Treasure is a sly little film that says a lot, especially about the European Union, without doing a lot. The golden dream of a democratic, capitalistic society to which Romanians clung while they were part of the Eastern Bloc tarnished in the oxygen of reality. Usurious interest rates combined with economic instability in the new Romania have our characters, Adrian and Costi, dreaming a different dream—in fact, a fairytale. Hilariously, Costi’s boss (Florin Kevorkian) learns that Costi used a work excuse to sneak out of the office. When Costi tells him truthfully that he left to meet with a metal detection firm to scan for treasure on a friend’s property, the boss nearly fires him for trying to play him for a fool. He insists Costi must be having an affair, and Costi, fearful of losing his job, complies with a made-up mistress and promises to end the affair to save his family.
The actual search for the treasure is about as true to life as it gets. Cornel moves back and forth inside the ramshackle remains of the once-grand estate and the acreage surrounding it, has trouble with his sophisticated, deep-imaging scanner, switches to a screeching surface scanner until Costi effects a repair, and argues off and on with Adrian as the tedium of the long day grows more acute. It’s odd to share the experience of standing around doing nothing; it’s a little boring and causes one’s mind to wander, but the anticipation that Cornel will turn up something exciting underlies the experience. When he finally thinks he’s found something, in the spot Adrian predicted, the men must then set to the hard work of digging two meters below ground. It’s almost cartoonish to watch, through Porumboiu’s steady, clinical gaze, as the dirt flies out of a hole lit only by a set of headlights and a single bulb flung over a tree branch.
Porumboiu introduces us to a rich cast of supporting characters, from minor functionaries at the Islaz police department to a resourceful thief and some larcenous country neighbors. Adrian doesn’t seem trustworthy, with his tales of family riches, but the country home he split with his brother as their inheritance is real enough. Costi is a kind, law-abiding man in a happy marriage, and we want the best for him. In the end, I felt quite happy with the behavior of all involved. Despite the looming threat of state seizure and only a small finder’s fee should a treasure of cultural significance be found, Adrian and Costi pursue their dream fairly. The film comes full circle, back to the magic of Robin Hood, the fantasy of buried treasure, and a father’s desire to be a hero in his son’s eyes—in part, thanks to the EU and the prosperity of a former enemy. The Treasure is a funny, human delight for the whole family.
There are no more screenings of The Treasure. It may be shown during Best of the Fest on Wednesday, October 28 at the AMC River East 21, 322 E. Illinois St.
Motley’s Law: Informative and inspiring documentary about Kimberley Motley, the only American allowed to practice law in Afghanistan. (Denmark)
The Emperor in August: Fascinating, beautifully shot historical drama of the final days before Japan’s surrender to Allied forces in World War II. (Japan)
Dégradé: Tensions both personal and political rouse a group of women trapped in a Gaza beauty salon by street warfare in a revealing look at life in a war zone. (Palestine/France)
Chronic: Compassionate, unflinching look at a home care nurse who treats dying and gravely ill patients as he begins to come to terms with his own terrible loss. (Mexico)
Clever: A divorced martial arts instructor pursues the reconstruction of his ego with a custom paint job on his car in this knowing comedy about human foibles. (Uruguay)
Adama: This ingeniously animated coming-of-age story takes a West African boy from his sheltered village to the very heart of darkness—the battlefield of Verdun during World War I—to bring his older brother home. (France)
How to Win Enemies: On the eve of his brother’s wedding, a lawyer is drawn into investigating a theft that hits close to home in this comedy set in the Jewish community of Buenos Aires. (Argentina)
Women He’s Undressed: Renowned director Gillian Armstrong offers an entertaining, partially dramatized documentary about Australian costume designer Orry-Kelly, who dressed some of the biggest stars in Hollywood. (Australia)
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Director/Screenwriter: Cristian Mungiu
By Marilyn Ferdinand
After the break-out success and Palme d’Or win of his 2007 abortion drama, 4 Months, 3 Weeks, & 2 Days, Romanian director Cristian Mungiu gained a kind of respect that tends to sanctify all successive efforts. I was knocked out by 4-3-2, but I find his newest film, Beyond the Hills, hard to parse. While adhering to the dogged realism and intensity of 4-3-2, Beyond the Hills is adapted from a novel, Deadly Confession, that itself is based on a 2005 exorcism attempt that shocked the Romanian public. The novel changed the story by making the young woman who underwent the exorcism a troubled friend of a nun instead of a nun herself and focusing on their relationship.
Mungiu has been asked in many of the interviews he has given about the film why he focuses on relationships between women. In one he gave to Zimbio, he points out that two of his films have included male protagonists. He further states, “My films are story-driven, not character-driven, and I seldom consider the gender of the protagonists before deciding if I’m interested by a story or not. These two films with female protagonists do not only describe their relationship, but speak about matters like personal freedom, compromise, sacrifice, choices in life, the role of religion in society today, social indifference, love and friendship, violence, faith or free will—all issues that transcend the gender border.”
Indeed, Beyond the Hills does touch on all these subjects, which is rather miraculous in itself, even for a film with a longish 155-minute running time, and the issues do have universal application. Nonetheless, unhappy consequences brought on by illegal abortion and manipulation in a community of female religious headed by a man reveal the kind of feminist agenda that can often be found more overtly in Iranian films, particularly those of Jafar Panahi. Mungiu explores his themes with a fair amount of subtlety, making room for individual intentions that tend to obscure the more global posturing of a feminist message. Unfortunately, by focusing on a 23-year-old woman outside the religious community—she is not observant and only goes through the motions of prayer and confession to please her friend—she becomes a completely unwilling victim. In addition, despite the many moments that feel true to life, in part because of Mungiu’s long takes that mimic the rhythms of real life, whether the film makes any kind of point largely depends upon the opinions of the audience. I have seen as many people view the film as a condemnation of superstition as think it is an exploitative exercise in violence against women. In my opinion, they’re both right.
The film opens in a train station, where Voichita (Cosmina Stratan) meets Alina (Cristina Flutur), her roommate at the orphanage where they both lived. People jostle her, and trains obscure Alina, who seems in danger of being hit by one in her rush to embrace Voichita. It becomes clear in Alina’s intense focus on Voichita as they travel to the primitive monastery where Voichita is a novice that the women were once romantically involved. Alina has made the trip from Germany, where she lives, to bring Voichita back with her. Alina has given up her apartment and job and secured work for them both on a German riverboat as waitresses. But Voichita has changed her mind. She tries to let Alina down easy, but the single-minded woman refuses to go without her. Then Alina falls ill with a lung infection and must be rushed to the hospital. Having missed the riverboat and with no home to return to, Alina is allowed to stay on at the monastery to recover after Voichita persuades a reluctant Father (Valeriu Andriuta) that she will make no problems for them.
Alas, Alina is troubled, possibly mentally ill, and becomes increasingly angry and disruptive. Eventually, Father and Mother (Dana Tapalaga) decide to “read” to Alina, and the rigors of an exorcism are filmed in excruciating, lengthy detail as the nuns craft a crude cross to which Alina is bound and gagged day and night, out of sight of the church congregants. The nuns carry her back and forth between an outbuilding and the church for the daily ritual, wash her when she soils herself, and deny her food and water to starve the demon that possesses her.
Mungiu provides a window into the opportunities for exploitation in Romanian society. The rapid growth of monasteries founded by self-styled sages like Father may be traced to the rebound of religious freedom in the country, but many of the acolytes come from orphanages that turn their residents out when they reach 18. Voichita found a comfortable home and purpose at her monastery, but for others, such as one of the sisters who is still in contact with her abusive husband, the monastic life is perhaps the only option they have. Alina’s retarded brother Ionut (Ionut Ghinea) has a job at a car wash where he is given no protective uniform to keep him warm and, significantly, no wages. He also becomes a member of the monastic community, his free labor and frigid cell perhaps a step down from the car wash.
The healthcare system seems to be the one bright spot in the country, and Alina receives adequate care there. Once back at the monastery, the nuns use her savings to pay for her medication, refuse her the rest she needs to recover, and eject her at one point to go live with her former foster parents. The couple have given away her room and stolen most of her savings, handing Mother back less than half of what she sent to them for safe keeping.
I had a lot of different reactions while watching this film. I felt for Voichita’s struggle between two conflicting allegiances, one to a life that fulfills her and the other to a relationship that helped her survive the orphanage but that she has outgrown. The nuns, though largely undifferentiated by the script, seem to be a cohesive unit struggling in a primitive compound without electricity or heating any more sophisticated than a fireplace, and in constant need of money. I didn’t particularly like Alina, and I felt the nuns, particularly Mother, were genuinely spiritual and believed they were trying to help her. Father struck me as prideful, striving to make the monastery successful, worrying about when or if the church will be consecrated, and anxious that Alina could drive their small congregation away. In proceeding alone with an exorcism that he himself said required two priests and manipulating Ionut into giving consent as Alina’s next of kin, I questioned his motives, if not those of his followers.
It is here that I started to feel queasy about the film. When winter arrives, it’s for real, and the visible breath of the actors shows just how cold it really is. Mungiu’s long takes necessitate long retakes if the actors flub any part of their performance; Mungiu reveals “we often shoot 20 or 30 takes and sometimes more.” I don’t wish to presume on the dedication of the entire film ensemble, but the harsh conditions of part of this shoot do give me pause about the level of pain and suffering a filmmaker—even an independent filmmaker of limited means—should be allowed to inflict. I might not have considered this question in the past—after all, Mungiu certainly isn’t the first director to demand so much from his cast and crew. But something about Father seems so like a projection of Mungiu’s personality, a believer in himself and his power justifying everyone’s faith and sacrifice.
Much is made of Alina making a full confession of her sins to Father, with the nuns reading off a list of nearly 500 sins she might have committed in a grimly humorous scene. It is not revealed what she tells Father, but her lesbian relationship might have been part of it, a part Voichita appears not to have confessed herself. Thus, Voichita can be seen as Alina’s undoer in some sense, just as Gabita exploited and injured Otilia in 4-3-2. Mungiu seems to take a dim view of close female friendships, with the most dire outcomes seeming to be the inevitable result of such closeness.
The film is beautiful to look at, the performances sophisticated and sincere, and the pacing fine for me, though perhaps too slow and deliberate for many. Beyond the Hills raises many important issues about relationships and religiosity, and Mungiu asserts that he is trying to be respectful of the characters by avoiding more voyeuristic shots (though watching Alina being chained to the cross does not seem particularly demure to me). However, by choosing such a sensational story and tacitly implicating modern society for its venal appetites and voyeurism, no matter how respectful Mungiu believes himself to be, we are drawn into the most cynical, and from my perspective, myopic conclusions.
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Director/Coscreenwriter: Radu Muntean
2010 Chicago International Film Festival
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.
Previous CIFF coverage
On Tour: A French TV producer returns from “exile” in America with a troupe of burlesque dancers to try to get back on top in this amiable, improvisational comedy. (France)
Circus Kids: The St. Louis Arches youth circus travels to Israel to join forces with the Galilee Circus to help bridge the gap between Arabs and Jews in this optimistic documentary. (Israel/USA)
The Matchmaker: Magical coming-of-age drama in which a teenage boy learns a message of love and tolerance from a Holocaust survivor. (Israel)
Ten Winters: Love will find a way, but it takes its time in this wise, realistic story of a young man and woman whose mutual attraction and friendship take some interesting turns over 10 years. (Italy)
Certified Copy: Elliptical tale of seduction by renowned director Abbas Kiarostami in which two strangers pretend to be a married couple in crisis. (Iran/Italy/France)
The Princess of Montpensier: The French Catholic persecution of Protestants forms the backdrop for this period drama about the travails suffered by a beautiful noblewoman desired by four men. (France/Germany)
Cameraman: The Life and Work of Jack Cardiff: Legendary British cinematographer Jack Cardiff and others who knew him discuss his career, including such highlights as The Red Shoes and Black Narcissus. (UK)
Waste Land: A moving examination of the positive transformation of workers in Brazil’s largest landfill when artist Vik Muniz comes to photograph them. (Brazil/USA)
Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives: This 2010 Palme d’Or winner chronicles the final days of Boonmee using magic realism and experimental techniques to explore universal myths and symbols. (Thailand)
The Last Report on Anna: A dreamy, romantic film centering on Anna Kéthly, real-life Hungarian minister in exile, and a spy’s attempt to silence her by seducing her into returning to their communist-controlled country. (Hungary)
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Director/Coscreenwriter: Radu Muntean
By Marilyn Ferdinand
December 16, 1989, was the beginning of the end of the reign of horror Nicolae Ceauşescu began and intensified over the 25 years he was the Communist dictator of Romania. On that day, the citizens in the town of Timişoara rose up against their abusive government. So severe were the deprivations to which Ceauşescu subjected Romanians, so outrageous the handling of dissent, that Ceauşescu would be the only ruler in the crumbling Communist bloc in Eastern Europe to suffer violent overthrow and execution.
Current Romanian cinema has focused a good deal of attention on the Ceauşescu regime and its downfall. From 4 Months, 3 Weeks, & 2 Days, to 12:08 East of Bucharest, to The Way I Spent the End of the World, Romania’s filmmakers have looked at various facets of this seminal time in their country’s history. Now we have The Paper Will Be Blue, an intriguing, accomplished film that takes us to ground zero of the revolution, recounting a fictionalized version of a true, widely publicized incident that occurred on December 22, after violent protests that finally shook Bucharest began.
Without an understanding of what happened, The Paper Will Be Blue can be quite confusing. Therefore, here’s a capsule summary I put together with the help of Wikipedia:
The morning of December 21, Ceauşescu addressed approximately 110,000 disgruntled Romanians from the balcony of the Central Committee building. He condemned the December 16 uprising in Timişoara. During the speech, sudden movement came from the outskirts of the crowd. Explosive sounds also could be heard. Bullhorns were used to spread the news that a “revolution” was unfolding, persuading the people to join in protest. They soon rioted.
The speech was broadcast live, with an estimated 76 percent of the nation watching. Although censors attempted to cut the live video feed, parts of the riots had already been seen. More people took to the streets. Soon the protesters were confronted by soldiers, tanks, and other security forces, though the army was split between those who were loyal to the Ceauşescu regime and those who wanted its overthrow. Through the night, forces considered to be loyal to the old regime (spontaneously nicknamed “terrorists”) opened fire on the crowd and attacked vital points of sociopolitical life, including the television station.
The Paper Will Be Blue takes us to this point in time. An armored car is stopped on a street, facing a tank and some soldiers milling around behind a roadblock. Two men emerge from the back of the armored car to stretch and have a smoke. Suddenly, gunfire explodes. One of the men from the armored car drops in place, another is blasted out of the car through a side window, and the third, wearing a civilian’s jacket attempts to escape and is hit. Yells of, “Whose firing? Who started firing?” are heard, probably from the soldiers behind the roadblock. Several come over to inspect the perhaps accidental damage.
The next scene shows the same armored car and its small complement of ordinary militiamen patrolling a Bucharest neighborhood. As evening falls, they spend their time smoking and checking the IDs of motorists who come through their checkpoint. One of the men makes a date with a woman he has stopped for the next evening. Word of the attack on the TV station reaches the unit. The commander of the unit, Lt. Neagu (Adi Carauleanu) is trying to get through to his section leader, Lt. Voinescu (Alexandru Georgescu), on his close-circuit radio, to find out what, if anything, his unit should do.
One of Neagu’s charges, Costi (Paul Ipate), the son of a connected surgeon who has been placed in the militia to keep him farther out of harm’s way, becomes fired with patriotic fervor. He wants to join the protesters who are trying to defend the TV station, he insists on it. Neagu, a fatherly leader, tries to stop him, but eventually lets him have his way. Forcing Costi to turn in his weapons, Neagu turns him loose, half expecting that Costi will change his mind. When he doesn’t, Neagu pulls his gun out to try to stop him. But Neagu’s a sweet marshmallow of a man, and lets Costi go. Nonetheless, worried about Costi’s safety and about getting in trouble for letting one of his men run off, Neagu and the rest of his unit search for him, driving to the TV station and then to Costi’s house.
The rest of the film toggles back and forth between Costi’s experiences as an instant revolutionary and Neagu’s mission to bring back one of his lambs gone astray. Both parts of the story are laden with miscommunications and cases of mistaken identity that convey both the chaos and confusion that comprise the beginnings of revolution and the level to which Ceauşescu has fallen out of touch with the Romanian people.
Communications devices work faultily or not at all throughout the film. Neagu can’t hear Voinescu, eventually having to drive to the Triumphal Arch where he thinks Voinescu is stationed to get his orders. He’s given a new password, “The paper will be blue,” that later will fail to be acknowledged by an Army unit (“It won’t work,” says Neagu, “they have their own.”). Telephone dial tones must be waited for patiently, but at least they eventually sound.
Costi, stripping off his uniform jacket for a street coat, also inadvertently discards his identification. When he and another freedom fighter named Georgescu (Gabriel Spahiu) go to a house captured by the revolting Army, they are recruited to take out a sniper firing on the house from the street. Then they are accused of being terrorists for the other side because Costi, spying the Army uniform of a man they injured, says the men they are firing on are on the side of the revolutionaries. Because Costi can’t produce his ID, he and Georgescu are taken to the basement and tied up. Georgescu is accused of being an Arab, though he is actually a Gypsy. Both men are repeatedly asked how they came to speak Romanian so well; the pair sit silently, exasperated.
In another scene, Neagu and Bogdan (Tudor Istodor), one of the unit’s men and a personal friend of Costi’s, go to Costi’s home to see if he has turned up there. They are greeted by Costi’s mother (Mirela Oprisor) and his girlfriend Angela (Ana Ularu) and invited in for something to eat. Dorina apologizes for having little to offer them. “If only Ceauşescu had fed them, this wouldn’t be happening,” she says of the rioting, implying the stupidity that caused the conditions for revolution.
The film, shot in 16mm, has a grainy, realistic feel. The film enfolds the audience in the dead of night during which most of the film takes place, adding a slightly surrealistic element to the absurdity of the actions. But the daylight that eventually ends the film does not increase comprehension in this riot-torn city. If anything, it makes human actions seem more senseless than ever.
Throughout the film, characters talk about the coming New Year. Neagu promises his men they will have leave on the New Year. He saves a bottle of wine they have taken with them from Costi’s home. “We’ll open it on New Year’s Day,” he says. Romania has seen a new year and a new day. However, not everyone who was there at the dawn had that chance.
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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.
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Director: Cristian Mungiu
2007 Chicago International Film Festival
By Marilyn Ferdinand
Fourteen hours after the end of 4 Months, 3 Weeks & 2 Days, and I’m still stunned. This urgent Romanian film, whose narrative drive is a welcome change of pace from many languid offerings at the CIFF this year, is so real, so nerve-rattling, that it creates a sense memory that’s hard to shake. I’ve viewed other films in the CIFF’s main competition—and fine film they are, too—but nothing compares with 4 Months, 3 Weeks & 2 Days. If it doesn’t capture the Gold Hugo Award the same way it captured the Palme d’Or at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, I’ll be very surprised.
The handheld digital camera establishes a shaky restlessness in the opening scene. Two young women are moving like mice around their dorm room, seeming to be moving objects from one place to another and back again. This is only an illusion, however. Their actions are purposeful. Gabriela (Laura Vasiliu) moves a fish tank with a couple of goldfish and about two inches of water from the table and folds up the plastic tablecloth. Her roommate Otilia asks if that was the tank someone gave her a while back. Yes, but different fish. She asks her roommate Otilia (Anamaria Marinca) to get one of their dorm mates to feed the fish. “We won’t be gone long. The fish can survive without food for two days.” The dubious look on Gabita’s face tells Otilia that she’d better make arrangements for the feedings. Something tells me the other fish died because Gabita forgot to feed them. Otilia asks Gabita if they have any soap. Gabita says no and then tells her what kind of soap to get; she has sensitive skin. Otilia also must get Kent cigarettes. They’re the only kind Gabita likes.
Otilia makes the rounds of the dormitory to fetch Gabita’s hair dryer from another girl and to visit the Arab student who runs a small sundries store from his dorm room. He doesn’t have Kents. Off Otilia goes, racing to catch a trolley to help her complete her chores.
She visits her boyfriend Adi (Alexandru Potocean), who teaches at her school. He gives her a passionate kiss and gropes her. She asks him to stop, that it embarrasses her, but she’s obviously very taken with him, too. He reminds her to be at his home at 5 p.m. for his mother’s birthday party. She says she can’t come. He can’t believe she’d slight his parents, to whom he planned to introduce her for the first time. She is insistent that she can’t. He asks her what’s going on. She won’t tell him. He presses her. She still refuses. He becomes distressed, and she agrees to come to the party. “I don’t know how I’ll manage it, but I’ll be there.” She promises to bring flowers, then asks him if he knows where she can buy some Kents. He suggests the black marketer at a nearby hotel. She nods matter-of-factly.
She goes to the hotel to check on a room reserved under the name “Drugat.” The clerk finds this an unusual name, probably suspecting it to be a pseudonym. In any case, there is no reservation under that name. The reservation was made by phone and no confirmation was secured. Despite Otilia’s best attempts to suggest that the person who took the reservation made a mistake, she is turned away. As she leaves, she approaches the black marketer, who is standing nonchalantly in the lobby. He sells her a box of Kents.
She finds another hotel and persuades the clerk to rearrange her reservations to secure a room for three days. The rate is rather high, and Otilia balks. The clerk becomes abrupt and asks her if she wants the room or not. Otilia agrees. She calls Gabita and tells her to borrow more money because some of the money they had needs to go for the hotel room. Gabita then informs her that Otilia must meet a Mr. Bebe for her and gives her an address. Otilia tells Gabita to meet her at the hotel and then hurries to the location and meets the suspicious Mr. Bebe (Vlad Ivanov). He asks her why Gabriela didn’t come herself, as they had agreed. Otilia makes up a story and gets into his car. He insists that she trust him because he is trusting her. With what? With keeping their secret. Mr. Bebe is to perform an abortion on Gabriela.
Abortion is illegal in Romania, so we get a visit to the bad old days of girls in trouble at the mercy of back alley abortionists. Mr. Bebe is probably no worse than some of his other “colleagues,” but he’s still a threatening presence who carries a switchblade along with the tools of his trade and demands sexual favors in lieu of shortfalls in cash. He assures himself of getting this fringe benefit by refusing to discuss money with his potential clients, saying only that they’ll “work something out.” He’s especially harsh with Gabita and Otilia because Gabita has lied about how far along she is—saying two months when she’s well into her fourth month. The three of them could face a charge of murder if caught.
After Bebe inserts the probe that will terminate the pregnancy and leaves, Gabita comes clean about more discrepancies to Otilia. She says she wasn’t “up” to meeting Bebe, that she said Otilia was her sister because it seemed like the right thing to do, that she picked Bebe instead of a woman because she thought Otilia didn’t care one way or the other. Otilia denies ever mentioning anything about her preferences. Angrily, she warns Gabita not to “think” so much again. But the damage has been done.
Otilia leaves the hotel to keep her promise to Adi, but she’s angry, traumatized, and irritated by his bourgeois family and guests who seem to look down on her working-class origins. With the fall of Communism, the put-upon intellectuals and professionals like Adi’s parents feel free to vent their spleen. Finally, when Adi and Otilia are alone, she faces him with a hypothetical decision—what would he do if she got pregnant. He’s confused and horrified and wholly unprepared to give her any security. It is then that she tells him she helped Gabita get an abortion.
The carefree life of the dormitory, the close friendship of Gabita and Otilia, the sensuous romance of Adi and Otilia—all have turned rancid for Otilia. She sees Gabita as a weak, careless, demanding creature. Adi, she thinks, is a man who can love as long as he and Otilia don’t have any bumps in the road. Whether these assessments are entirely fair, they certainly have surfaced in some fashion during this ordeal. Otilia herself is revealed to be a self-sacrificing martyr who was finally asked to do too much.
What is so compelling about 4 Months, 3 Weeks & 2 Days is its profound reality, its avoidance of cheap melodrama, and its feeling for the surface and undercurrents of Romanian life. There’s no blunting the force of this powerful work of art. It’s a bonafide masterpiece.