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One and a Half Prince (2018)
One and a Half Movie
Incompleteness is an important theme to Ana Lungu's feature, a 'story' about three friends cohabiting with one another, featuring a selection of scenes from their lives. The ever so slight narrative circles around Iris, who is dealing with the sudden death of her boyfriend and looking to fill the void.
The boundaries between reality and fiction are blurred by the fact that the actors play themselves as characters. This generates a certain 'meta' feeling, particularly when it is actually discussed within the movie, but abstractly. A lot of the script plays as improvised, with unpolished dialogue and awkward silence abounding.
Unfortunately, this loose approach didn't work too well for me. The air of detachment surrounding Iris, the lead and also co-writer of the movie, sets her character somewhere in the distance, too far to be touched and emoted with. As a result, the movie failed to pull me in, playing as an almost random sequence of events with neutral people talking as people often do, boasting an aimless sense of philosophical enrichment. It might capture the particular joys and tribulations of actors, featuring nods and references to the likes of Mike Leigh and Daphne du Maurier, but what it succeeds at is framing them as people, in all their/our mundane glory.
The beautiful cinematography partly makes up for the lack of thrills or the incisiveness of its introspections. It is, however, not enough to make for a recommendation.
Set It Up (2018)
Zoey Deutch and Glen Powell reunite after the excellent Everybody Wants Some (2016) in this low frills, high-chemistry rom-com. There isn't much to dwell on here, as 'Set It Up' proves the ideal low-stakes Friday night Netflix watch.
Deutch and Powell play Harper and Charlie, two young and ambitious characters working for a very special brand of pushy, domineering bosses. When they realize their common predicament, they set out to...set up their bosses, in the hope that it will lead to quality of life improvements for themselves. In an ironic twist, the ones being pushed around leverage their insights into personal scheduling and personal preferences to ensure the mis-match ends up matching. As is usual for mischievous do-gooders, there will be fraternizing and moral conundruming. And it will be fun.
Any successful rom-com hinges on the compatibility of its leads. Luckily, that's not an issue here, with both potential couples gelling or not gelling just as intended. It's the energy of all four key characters that keeps the movie alive, thanks to the odd piece of witty writing or amusing situation. I think I only rolled my eyes once at some ultra-corny moment that could have been avoided, but beyond that, director Claire Scanlon works gently and fairly with her characters. Everybody learns an important life lesson by the end and, surprisingly, it's a lesson I relate to, although I've never had the issue of overworking myself in order to avoid pursuing my passions. There are other, more pleasureful ways of doing it.
Fotbal Infinit (2018)
The Flow of the Ideas and Being
Corneliu Porumboiu's most recent work is a 'documentary-essay' about - well, the human condition. The director likes to focus on the question of how one can be truly free within rules and norms, but that was not the strong point that made me appreciate this work. Instead, I was fascinated by how well 'Infinite Football' captures the manner in which life shapes the ideas we hold and how, with the passing of time, we have the tendency to create our own narratives almost regardless of whether those ideas align or not.
We follow Laurentiu Ginghina, a 50-something administrative clerk whose story starts when he was in his teens and had his fibula broken while playing football. He describes it later not as an act of malice or an error of judgment on the part of the players or himself, but rather a failure of the rules that govern the sport. It is the rules that facilitate, even require, this kind of physicality. A mere year after Laurentiu recovers from his broken fibula, which doesn't even heal correctly, his weakened shinbone crumbles on a wintery day in a red December, leaving the man to limp six kilometers all the way home.
So what's up with this adversity? It's what sets the man on a more existential path, emboldening him to search for purpose. The purpose of his life - a rather mundane one, in spite of the odd experience abroad - was to improve football. His ideas to improve the game start out with a few radical changes, like turning the pitch into an octagonal shape, removing the offside rule and subdividing the two teams by restricting their movement between specific lines. As his ideas percolate and fail to find acceptance, they are tweaked and adapted, to the point of becoming more impractical or even redundant, in what is to be Football 2.0. Or if that doesn't work, Football 2.1, or 2.9 or...infinite football.
But Porumboiu's film isn't really about football. "The ball is free, but we are not" is our protagonist's mantra, who simply fails to bridge the distance between theory and practice in a strained effort to matter. Doesn't almost everyone have his one idea they never managed to bring to fruition? That's what makes the movie truly relatable, especially in that Porumboiu treats Mr. Ginghina with interest and attention. Perhaps this is the best that we can all do, being gentle with each other and our ideas, starting with a certain age where everything tends to become more immutable. The meta-analysis of our being free within norms and rules is a perfunctory one, which works to some degree, but never enthralls by gathering a weight of relevance.
I'm definitely a fan of these Herzog-ian documentaries wherein some boundary-blurring occurs between the real and the surreal. Porumboiu, by inserting himself into the movie, encouraged this experience. It might be too close to the fringes of the absurd for some, but I think it's a philosophically fueled movie that trims it's audience based on compassion. And whether they think Messi is better than Ronaldo. 8/10
Planeta Petrila (2016)
Oh Petrila, My Sweet Chinchilla
Nobody can accuse Dascalescu's documentary of being without flair. I still recall, almost a decade ago, emerging from a forest road into Zlatna, a mining community some 200 km apart from Petrila: the picture perfect image of desolation was shocking. So to the extent that 'Planeta Petrila' celebrates the birth of some form of (artistic) life from such wreckage, it is a great success. However, it feels detached from the wider community of the town and in not taking an inquisitive stance on the viability of life in former coal mining 'colonies', it shies away from the bigger social and environmental questions.
Ion Barbu, ex-miner, or rather ex-mining topographer, current artist/activist/do-it-all is a veritable one man show. His distinctively spirited visual designs and Banksy-esque witticisms are plastered around Petrila, contrasting the dying pulsations of the coal mining industry. Alongside him - or rather, in a parallel universe - Catalin Cenusa leads one of the last mining teams to work the deep shafts of Petrila. The contrast between the two is stark and Dascalescu recognizes this, but never broaches the issue: Barbu is looking for Petrila's continuity beyond mining, while Cenusa is intent on working the coal for as long as possible. The latter's fight is a solitary one, with just one hundred people left of more than four thousand still earning their livelihoods from the Petrila mining exploitation.
The pressure to close the mines comes from the European Union, or rather the funds contracted by the government from the EU to 'green out' the area. It's somehow funny that in a documentary about mining, where the effect of mine closures are part of the focal point, I don't recall hearing the words 'environmental impact' or 'global warming' even once. If they were mentioned, it was more incidental. Instead there are clear indications as to what Dascalescu feels is the uninterested involvement of local and national authorities in the whole matter. Authorities are accused to have bypassed required consultations with communities of places like Petrila, in a desire to ensure European financing and, presumably, monetize some obscure vested interests in the greening and demolition process. The bigger issue though is not so much what the community wants to do, because the movie provides no sense of who the community is; it simply stays close to Barbu and to the involvement of out-of-town NGOs in preserving a cultural art space in some of the mine's historic buildings.
I have no idea what the artistic value of Barbu's work is, but it's soulful stuff. Planeta Petrila provides a melancholic frame for the bitingly ironic and rightfully frustrated artist, ramping his desire for cultural renewal to overdrive. Barbu's bubbling personality and sharp sense of humour lighten up the gray realities of the town. From colourful graffitis to underground theater festivals, it's all happening in Petrila for the first time in...perhaps ever. The strong attachment to the heritage of the place, its silent suffering and the inherent sadness when it is all about to end come into focus in the best moments of Dascalescu's movie. The footage from inside the mine shafts, where Cenusa (translation: "ashes") and his crew really shuffle off their mortal coils, strengthened by the satisfaction of their work and some self-deprecating humour, are a testament to the importance of purpose and of being good at your craft, albeit a tragically outdated one.
In all this, the documentary could have done with more focus, because it feels disjointed in its two protagonists and in its desire to establish itself as activist cinema. My main gripe with Planeta Petrila is that it propagates that against which it preaches: the imposition of foreign interests on socially impaired communities. The fact that Dascalescu does not portray a balanced view of events, with next to no input from political and administrative figureheads, is not an issue; a documentary need not be a factual debate. But a lot of the time it feels like the activism caught on camera is a cause in itself, a self high-five, if you will. Planeta Petrila never successfully makes the case it implicitly supports at the outset, as articulated by Barbu: art can be Petrila's redemption. It looks more like art can and is Barbu's redemption, whose stubborn persistence, supported by NGOs, ensures the creation of a cultural space to keep the once socially-defining mining heritage of the community alive. In terms of how the people of Petrila will go on, other than desert the place, there are no answers, because the question is not being asked. The community seems voiceless, with Barbu, whose son travels the world on a motorbike, too cosmopolitan a figure, and Cenusa too far in the background and too intent on ensuring his livelihood.
Perhaps my skepticism is getting the better of me here, but that's what I would have wanted to see more of, to elevate the movie beyond an expression of art for art's sake. For what it's worth, Planeta Petrila is distinctive and paints in beautiful colours against the grey backdrop that is (was) the mining industrial complex. It's the kind of place I would like to emerge into when next traveling the forests around Zlatna.
Ana, mon amour (2017)
The Relationship Hive Mind
Netzer's follow-up to the excellent Child's Pose (2013) shares some elements with its precursor, but takes a different angle to the emotional roots and psychological ties of family life. A complex and layered film, it is framed in the present, but plays with the chronology of events to suit its thematic anchors: how relationships shape their protagonists and create inherent tension, abiding by no morality punch- card. While pertinent and polished in its construction, I found it hard to stay connected emotionally, especially as the characters evolve elliptically and the change in their dynamic feels abrupt.
Our couple is Toma and Ana, two lovers who meet during university and, more than anything, fall into a relationship. They are both cultured individuals and complete each other well, as Ana suffers from anxiety attacks and Toma is seemingly always there to support her. The movie proceeds to take us through the usual familial meet and greets, which prove traumatic and lay the groundworks for all the ensuing/existing psychological trauma. Those scenes have a sense of caricature about them, with 'traditional' values of partner screening proving funny and harrowing at the same time. But they prove to be just pieces of an ambitious human puzzle, which ends up taking us down an exploratory route devoid of superfluous emotion.
As an aside, some people in the cinema were taken aback by the explicitness of a sex scene, which I would rather deem justified, due to the Freudian aspects of Netzer's approach - and a meaningful character- building moment.
The attention to detail in fleshing out Ana and Toma provides the characters with a lot of depth. They are, as one would say, profoundly human in their imperfections and the manner in which this comes to the surface as their relationship evolves feels very true. The movie puts psychoanalysis at its core, turning it into an indirect plot device, which sometimes looks like a black box. More important though is how Ana and Toma react to change, in particular to Ana's gradual self- empowerment (thanks to a mixture of religion and psychoanalysis), which fundamentally alters Toma's role as 'the saviour'. It all becomes a matter of identity, of shaping and losing it, as defined by relationship roles, rather than intrinsic traits. Quite interestingly, the first scene finds the protagonists discussing Nietzsche's Beyond Good and Evil - the subjugation of morality to Christian dogma and the idea that good and evil are not quite opposites. By the end of the film, the overwhelming sense of some moral misappropriation between Ana and Toma can and, perhaps, should be seen through this lens, with no clear distinctions at hand for who is in the right and who might have been wronged.
While all this is intense and fascinating stuff, the chronological structure creates a bridge I couldn't cross. On the one hand, the technical execution of the to and fro was handled well - it's impressive how different degrees of a receding hairline can create a sense of time. Although some nuances are lost, that ends up challenging the viewer and keeping him engaged. On the other hand, because of gaps in time, Ana is difficult to grasp. She becomes a completely different person, which goes so far as her accent changing, and due to the elliptical nature of the story, she also feels emotionally like a third character in the relationship. Whereas Toma is more consistent throughout, Ana is fractured, making her feel foreign and inauthentic.
This is part of the reason why the second half of the film lost some momentum. Upon its conclusion, which tries a little twist and then goes one mile too far by trying to explain it, I wasn't engaged any more. It's a shame, because there is so much pain and sacrifice in Ana, Mon Amour that it really makes love feel like penance and weaves an exquisite psychological pattern to justify the claim. For the exploration it undertakes in what drives the two lead characters, both so well portrayed by Postelnicu and Cavallioti, it is commendable.
No Intenso Agora (2017)
A Moment in Time
Brazilian director Joao Moreira Salles wrote and directed this documentary (English Title: In the Intense Now) wrapped around the years 1966-1968 and the intense revolutionary spirit that engulfed certain parts of the world: France, foremost, but also Czechoslovakia, China and Brazil. Although the movie is inherently political, it rises above politics to express the fleetingness of self-actualization, the kind moments of such a spiritual coming together catalyzes. Although a tad long and sometimes too explicitly ponderous, Salles's work provides a unique frame to a very particular moment in time which is exceptionally relevant in the present day climate, all around the world.
The starting point for this project, composed predominantly of amateur archival footage, was Salles stumbling across film recordings his mother had shot during her visit to China in 1966. It was the first year of the Cultural Revolution, but what's really striking is the almost transformative effect the experience had on his mother. Providing a somewhat pedantic observational narrative, brimming with suppositions about what certain scenes mean, or what protagonists recorded on video might be thinking and feeling, the director spends most of the movie in Paris, where he lived for a while around the same period. Then, in May 1968, protests broke out among students in France, against the class- driven hierarchization of society and sexual conservatism. The dispute between students, on the one side, and university administration and the government on the other, escalated quickly, as worker unions joined the protests. All of a sudden, France was paralyzed. And liberated, at the same time, as Salles observes.
The events of those months are about more than social discord though. Salles nuances the idealism which spread like brushfire, manifesting itself in certain leading characters of the otherwise leaderless 'revolution', like Daniel Cohn-Bendit – a student at the University of Nanterre, where the protests were ignited before reaching the Sorbonne and Paris. The shift in communication dynamics, from a stifling top-down approach rooted in centuries of class division, stood out in interviews of the time. Yet, more than anything else, the protests also developed a renewed sense of belonging and generated an artistic flurry of dissent, Banksy-esque almost, including:
Soyez réalistes, demandez l'impossible (Be realistic, ask the impossible)
Sous les paves, la plage (Under the paving stones, the beach)
It's hard not to feel something. And then, the movement slowly withered – in the approximate words of Jean-Paul Sartre, who personally interviewed Cohn-Bendit: Spring belongs to the students, but Summer belongs to the holidays. Moreso, the commercial potential became obvious and even Cohn-Bendit, exiled for a short while in Germany, ended up writing a memoir of the events for a quick buck and a publishing deal. The Revolution that never was, lead with spontaneity and not with political manifestos and lists of demands, then faded, resulting in minimal, percentage-sized improvements to worker wages. The divide persisted as well, even between the protesters, as the worker class and the student class never found the equal footing. In the wake of it, desolation set in for the idealists, even though the landscape for social and political movements had changed forever. Salles contrasts martyrdom across Paris, Prague (the Soviet occupation, after the Spring protests) and Rio (march against the military dictatorship), focusing on the familial textures as well as the wider social impact of these deaths, questioning whether they represent persistent hope or the effigy thereof.
What really hits hard is the sense that for many involved, especially among the students, those days of 1968 were the highlights of their lives, the purest form of ébouillant existence, living 'in the intense now'. There's a joy of camaraderie, of a mutual and subliminal understanding which stem from the joint struggle. One wonders whether the depth of those weeks of protests, of standstill, is something that can still be today, with the rhythm of life and the exhibitionist nature of social media. Although subverting the status quo should be easier, just by looking at the recent (and ongoing) protests in my home country, Romania, I'm left more with vague hope, than conviction. I don't dare draw further parallels, because these are not trifles; they are intricate manifestations of a shared design of what life should be, in spite of apparent similarities.
Salles stumbled across the perfect time frame per chance. His work on No Intenso Agora started in 2012, before the world went aflame – in his native Brazil, in Europe, in the United States. The choice of spanning over four different manifestations of revolt is overbearing and tentative at times, but one can sense an inner core holding them together. Perhaps what bothered me, if anything in particular, was some of the narration, coming across as professorial. Once purpose was established, more natural expression and feeling coming directly from the images could have enhanced their impact and their significance, not unlike something as eccentric as The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceausescu (2010).
Other than that though, this was the best movie I had the chance of watching at the Berlinale. It's a strange mix of analytical-poetic- social justice, that ultimately leaves a lingering sense of how fleeting and unique some of the most important moments of our lives can be. There is no recipe to it, but Salles clearly indicates that a tempestuously exhibited shared belief, with the deep tributaries of 1968, can change our perception of purpose and existence. I'm not sure I completely agree, but the thesis is compelling and No Intenso Agora is good at expressing it.
The Dinner (2017)
An Exciting Mess
Oren Moverman's latest movie is quite the challenge. It has difficult characters, discomforting dialogue, an intricate construction and spreads over two hours. Nobody can accuse The Dinner of being unambitious, but I would like to accuse it of being an ambitious mess. Thankfully, not an unbearable mess.
Although Richard Gere (Stan) headlines, it's Steve Coogan (Paul), playing his brother, who appears to lead at the beginning. In an unexpected American accent, he narrates with misanthropic cynicism, as preparations for a dinner event are underway. The narration stops at some point and comes back randomly throughout the movie - just one of several small incoherences that make everything feel unusual. Stan and Paul's relationship is strained, at best, while their wives Kate (Rebecca Hall) and Claire (Laura Linney) act as mediators. Some dark matter seems to have brought them together at an elitist restaurant boasting culinary lushness; a matter which unfolds at a slow pace, interlaced with Stan fighting to pass a bill in congress, Paul's Gettysburg obsessions, their children's suspect affairs, past personal traumas, all across several courses of an impressive sounding meal.
For a movie that desires to tackle the lofty theme of social divide, it starts out feeling very personal. As it progresses, it distances itself from Paul to focus on the bigger picture and gravitate around Stan. It's a difficult move to pull off, as some sense of alienation occurs in the viewer, who has to accept the deep flaws surfacing in the 'object of attachment'. I felt a bit stranded, which culminated in a subpar ending.
But it wasn't a complete shipwreck, as Stan, alongside Kathey and Claire, managed to wrestle my attention. Indeed, wrestle is the right word, in what turns out to be a less than peaceful digestif. The whole preachiness of the last thirty minutes or so is borderline crass, yet engaging, in a visceral kind of way. It's a decent payout after ninety minutes of fluctuating intensity.
Do the themes and motives really blend though? It's hard to find a 'red string' to carry you through, as Paul's Hobbesian worldview overlaps with discussions of mental illness, political maneuvering and familial discord. You get pushed into finding personal interpretations to allegorical content, which is fun and rewarding, yet the movie proves heavy- handed in framing its moral questions and imperatives. Next to its schizophrenic identity dilemma, this just works against itself in the final scenes.
I really liked the intensity, the grotesque and obscene affluence entailed by the dinner scenes, even some of the almost derivative monologues. The interpretative freedom made some of the drearier moments worthwhile, but more cohesion and restraint would have transformed The Dinner into something quite special all around. In spite of the backlash it's being served, Oren Moverman's film is a worthwhile exploration into how messy holding yourself consistent socially and philosophically can be.
A Solo Woman Facing the Void
'A solo woman facing the void' is the expression someone used during the film's Q&A, when describing herself. The tag applies equally to the leading character in Barrage, Catherine (Lolita Chammah), a woman in her thirties trying to reconnect with her daughter, who had been raised by her grandmother for most of her life. Seen from a wider perspective, it looks a lot like a movie about a single mother and the struggle to prevent family-inherent traumas. But it's just as much about the struggle with oneself.
Story-wise, there's very little to say: Catherine shows up and wants to spend time with her daughter, to the disapproval of her own mother, both on and off-screen, Elisabeth (Isabelle Huppert). A few hours turns into half a day which turns into a weekend, as the two struggle to feel at ease with one another. And then the movie ends.
A more cynical person than myself could claim that the whole experience represents what European films are denigrated for: almost two hours of nothing happening. But that assessment would only be partially true. Overlong at its current run time and with a heavy observational period that spans for about an hour in the middle, the movie tests your patience. But it also builds on the bony relationship of the mother- daughter couple, in real-to-life process that just is painfully slow. Wrought with tension due to the expectation of failure on Catherine's part, even as she does come short, there is no sense of artificial doom, only for it to be swapped by some deeper recognition in the last three scenes. Rather the movie sets up a finale that offers relevant insights into the further dynamic of the characters, the generationally conditioned aspects of who they are and where they will go from there.
Somehow, I find myself writing that it all works, in spite of its shortcomings. The gorgeous scenery, the restrained performances and some unexpected, but well-suited musical arrangements come together into a coherent experience. It's going to be an acquired taste, flying close to artistic pretension, because of the pacing. Perhaps what swayed me was the metaphorical use of tennis in framing the relationship of the three women, a sport that's recognized for the battle one wages not so much with his or her opponent, but with oneself.
It's not an exciting movie, in a sense. Yet there are moments where it manages to connect and resonate, which has the power to outdo mere excitement. So yes, there is some reward at the end of this particular winding road.
Great Music Alone
The opening film of the Berlinale competition is yet another take on the sufferings brought on by the second World War. In a mixture of biopic and historical drama, Django fails in standing out from the crowd, walking down the one- dimensional route of escape from Nazi persecution, while rendering its characters secondary.
Django Reinhardt, a guitarist of Romani ethnicity, is dazzling the crowds in Paris during the later days of the German occupation. The specter of deportation looms over his family, his band, yet he refuses to accept the idea that anyone would harm him, due to his positive notoriety. However, after declining to tour in Germany, a quick visit to a local police station makes him see the light, as he flees close to the Swiss border, awaiting transfer. There, he comes across a local Romani camp and they come together to perform music in the area, as a means for survival. That's pretty much the gist of the story, which is as bland as it sounds. After a great opening scene, followed by an equally impressive musical performance, the movie drifts into this grey area where not much happens. Reda Kateb's performance is strong enough to retain some interest, yet the production lingers without delving deeply into either Django's person, nor the plight of the Romani people. Whenever music starts playing, the film comes to life, but this is not sufficient to keep a rhythm.
It's a shame, really, because there are glances of why Reinhardt could have been a relevant leading figure. Being unable to read or write, and bearing a childhood injury on his playing hand,his performances come from a deeply rooted passion for music, seemingly instilled by his Romani heritage and culture. This generates the contrast of music from the heart and music from the head, which is not subtle, yet it plays well with how ridiculously rigurous and lifeless Nazi censorship was. The close knit relations with his family, band and the fellow survivors he meets at the Swiss camp are well shaded against Reinhardt's privileged position, and his sense of entitlement. Yet, there is no clear sense of inner conflict, although the movie does imply that his personal quest is to learn some self sacrifice, putting himself second.
This is part of the problem, that Django just can't set itself apart and come across without conviction. Supporting characters have little to no personality, and function as either plot enhancers, or easy to swap band members. Only the relationship between Reinhardt and his mother is distinguishing, even if it feels at times like comic relief. The generic portrayal of the Nazi oppressors doesn't help either, as is the case with some of the elliptical moments in the story. Even the name of the movie should have given pause for thought: how does one make something distinctive with such an overused title?
Django would have been a much better experience, had it stuck to its music, especially as some of the artist's work was lost, which is a cause for grief. As another survival movie from the war, it falls flat, especially compared to some of the previously released hard-hitting productions, be they grim or soulful representations of the horror.
A Simple Tradition
A South African film was on show for the opening night of the Berlinale. Directed by John Trengove, it's the story of Xolani, set against the backdrop of a local circumcision initiation ritual. Barely had I settled into my seat, that penises were being sliced up at the edge of a forest, in ad-hoc conditions. So, yeah, it caught my attention.
The whole story though finds itself at an interesting intersection between tradition, homosexuality and validation. For Xolani, who otherwise works in the city, it's the yearly return 'in the mountains', to meet Vija, the man he loves. For Kwanda, Xolani's initiate, it's the pressure to conform with alpha male stereotypes. For most of the other participants, it's a last stand in the face of modern turpitude, both a rite of passage into manhood and a rite of separation from the others.
The first half or so of the movie, which sets the scene and introduces the characters, is almost fascinating. With strong acting all around, it's easy to get sucked into the experience and what's even more impressive, is the manner in which Trengove infuses such sensibility in something that otherwise could count as butch. The contrasting personalities are wrought with tension, culminating in some beautiful moments of just being. It all comes to life thanks to commanding craftsmanship and an eye for strong visuals, which is one consistent feature throughout.
Unfortunately, the latter part of the film elects to go for a more traditional exposition and resolution, with uneven pacing. What's worse though is the characters losing some of their sharpness, especially in scenes where they are turned into mere rhetoric tools. By the time the finale came around, I felt waywardly uninvolved. It's like the need for relevance and clarity became overbearing.
All things considered, The Wound stands as a film that, at its best, conveys a unique poetic restraint. It might not shine all the way through, yet it provides insight into a corner of the world that's usually left in the dark, tackling some big themes on the way. I would never want to fault someone for being too ambitious, so The Wound gets my recommendation.
Camera Obscura (2016)
The Anachronistic Avantgard
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) and Cinema, mon amour (2015) 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.
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.
A Wall Apart
Full disclosure, 2016 hasn't been a great romancing year for me, so I get easily irked by too much quirky stuff or unsubstantiated love kernels. And for the most part, easy-breezy romcoms tend to consist of a string of those. So it's at least partly my fault that Blind Date didn't stick.
Then again, it felt like all the creators were working with was a concept and a final scene: the former bordering on the absurd, the latter more romantic than I was set up to expect, by the look of things. Everything else was filled in with a competent, but cloggy and predictable plot and endearingly cardboard-y characters. OK, that's harsh. The leads have a tinge of something special about them, both reclusive introverts, passionate creatives - playfully nicknamed Machine and Machin. Separated by a thin and not at all soundproof wall, they get to organizing their lives around one another and ultimately fall for each other. The secret sauce lies in them not having seen each other and therefore being able to focus on the essence of what's being conveyed. At times, the two even have enough personality to be more than cardboard cut-outs.
Instead of spending more time with them, we're served with two second-hand supporting characters, the adulterous sister (or was it friend?) of 'Machine' and the overly supportive friend of 'Machin'. The problem with these two is that they bring nothing to the story. Instead, they are classic counter-points - the rebellious matron to the timid girl, the happy-go-lucky fellow to the misanthrope. This makes them superfluous, because no time is dedicated to truly fleshing them out enough for anything they do to even matter.
Coming back to our protagonists, their purpose is to free one another of what's tying them down, while also coming together. For one, it's a perfectionist obsession with the creation brain-teaser games; for the other, it's a perfectionist obsession with playing the piano. It fits, we do like fixing in others what we can't fix in ourselves. This takeaway, so common to romantic comedies, is the bane of my existence. To its defense, Blind Date tries to nuance the matter, as one might find motivation in another, but still needs to independently commit to change. Even so, there's just an excessive amount of wish fulfillment about the movie, as too much is left unexplored to really make it worthwhile. Luckily, the bits of Chopin scattered throughout help out.
People seem to like the flick, so with my disclaimer in mind, take what you will out of this review. Yet I cannot help being disappointed, because while it does feel authentic at points, it predominantly appears trite. Maybe I should just lower my pretentious romcom bar a notch or two.
Afacerea Est (2016)
That's How It's Done
I still recall Igor Cobileanski's first two shorts ("Cand se stinge lumina" and "Sasa, Grisa si Ion") with great fondness. It was the earlier days of the internet 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 promised to be more of, let's say it, his trademark style.
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.
Nocturnal Animals (2016)
The Story Within the Story
Minor interpretation spoiler.
Any follow-up to 'A Single Man' was bound to be challenging, with bar set so high. Expectations are a horrible thing to have. Ironically, Tom Ford puts together an intricate tale about exactly that: expectations and love and mistakes and payback. It is captivating thanks to the lead trio of Amy Adams, Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Shannon. It works visually in spite of the occasional clichés. But it's not an even story and the mediocre writing cannot be forgiven. Implicitly, Nocturnal Animals taints itself with the muck of pretentiousness. Yucky muck.
Susan, unhappily wrapped in her glamorous life as director/board member of an art gallery, receives a manuscript from her ex-husband, Edward. It's a book about a family being assaulted on a lonely country road by a bunch of aggressive do-nothings. Susan begins to read it just as her own ideal marriage cracks at a distance and we are enveloped by the story within the story. One, in the cold and sterile home/life Susan has built for herself, the other in the violent, passionate, conflicted Western-ish decor of Edward's novel. The parallels between the two are as plentiful, as they are visceral. Which is the best thing that can be said about Nocturnal Animals.
Amy Adams is such a strong presence on screen. She is particularly adept at portraying frailty, the kind that works as an undercurrent more than a dominating trait (see Arrival for even more nuance). Jake Gyllenhaal, meanwhile, atypically provides the 'weak' character, the dreamer, the one who is sensitive to a fault. It is in this study of what we might desire and how elusive it all is, how hard it is to find the right amount of something at any given time in another person that Nocturnal Animals strikes an honest chord. What carries the movie beyond the procedural 'catch-the-bad-guys' it sets up for itself, is an unpredictable, loose and enthralling Michael Shannon, who plays the law enforcement element. And Aaron Taylor-Johnson isn't a half bad asshole either.
The problem is there are several filler characters as well, such as some of the party faces (even if they were mightily familiar, i.e. Michael Sheen and Andrea Riseborough), Armie Hammer's role as the distant husband, or Laura Linney's domineering mother-figure. It's particularly a problem because, to me, they are the ones supposed to be the nocturnal animals, the predators. And in this commentary on a social divide, the movie falls short, because all it does is point caricatures of fingers at it. The uninspired writing, including some awful and pedantic dialogues, kept taking me out of where I wanted to be, enjoying the drama. And some fairly random scares did little to help with it either. The movie just can't strike a consistent tone, trying to be a lot of things at the same time and inevitably failing.
So yes, I was disappointed. Tom Ford might not have undermined his stylistic approach, as he still manages to iron over the elements that don't work so well by applying his particular aesthetic. But if it were not for some of the performances on screen, it would be really hard to recommend Nocturnal Animals - which is pretty damning. Well, expectations and all considered.
Sour Grapes (2016)
I don't even drink wine, so my understanding of the collector's impulse is bound to be limited. Nonetheless, the themes flowing through Sour Grapes, smoothly prepped in the movie equivalent of a decanter, provide a certain sparkle on the tongue, a deeply flavoured experience with a tinge of Schadenfreude. The latter is essential, as it frames the human impulse behind what is ultimately no more than an astute con.
There's a palpable story at the roots of this documentary: Rudy Kurniawan, a skinny, wise-beyond-his-years kind of fellow, appears on the international wine auctioning scene in the early/mid 2000s and becomes a big player at an impressive pace. If there's one thing that's universally known about the early/mid 2000s, it's that they preceded the latter 2000s - hah, just kidding! But not really, for the decade started with the fake excess of the dot-com bubble and then flourished in the fake excess of the housing market bubble. Per chance (or not), Kurniawan's trajectory does well to parallel these cautionary tales, only that its conclusion is brisk and there were few tears shed about the victims. As one usually does, when it comes to the rich losing out in their Bateman-esque games of self-affirmation and chest thumping.
The fascinating bit lies in the possibility of a fraud existing in a world so tightly strung by expert knowledge. A wine connoisseur has a special kind of fame attached to his or her ability to discern the exceptional from the good. It's something acquired through years of sophisticated training and a lot of expensive wines. Additionally, as important sums of money are thrown around, it is also the kind of area ripe for pretense. Similarly to, perhaps, the market for art collectors, there will always be people who understand art, historically and aesthetically, and those who collect it for the sheer exercise, be it financial or egotistical. The same applies to wines.
It's in this contrast that Sour Grapes comes alive. The story is told through a limited collection of archival footage of Kurniawan and present day interviews with people in the business: collectors, sommeliers, wine producers. It paints this canvas of wine as an ultimately simple and beautiful experience, pandering somewhat to Domain Ponsot's lavishly poetic narrative. Lavish to the point of being hypocritical, even. And it also frames Kurniawan as this endearing character, much liked by those who bought his wines. There's surprisingly little sourness to the movie, especially for so much money being involved. Yet, that also plays into this idea of the exclusive wine club, where people are so enlightened (and rich), that they can look beyond trifling deceptions worth millions.
So perhaps that's part of what I didn't quite like, the neatness of it all, the lack of further prodding. You also get a sense there's a template for these meta-documentaries, where a deeply ironic situation is framed with lyrical prowess, only to sustain some unnecessary ambiguity about its central character(s). Kurniawan is guilty and a bunch of people were defrauded, even if he might have had to bear the brunt of it.
But there's also a certain beauty to being caught in such a great deception, because the contrast is so stark. The story sells itself, so the point of the movie was to somehow capture it with the limited footage it had of its lead. Atlas and Rothwell came good and they also managed to leave any sardonic undertones as just that, undertones. Ultimately, even for someone with no taste for wine, I was excited by the end, having sat through this very particular tasting menu of intricate lies. The thought that nothing is quite black and white lingers in the knowledge that thousands of Kurniawan wine bottles are still in wine cellars around the world.
Some real, some fake - and the afterthought that one might not really want to know the truth.
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.
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.
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. In larger cities, they 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 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.
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.
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, clumsily punctuated by profanities. 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.
Perfetti sconosciuti (2016)
The Undergrowths of Married Life
I've never liked truth or dare, so as soon as one of the characters suggested a truth/dare like game for a peaceful get together with friends, I knew at a personal level that the worst would come about. 'Single room' movies, ever so dependent on a strong script, can easily become overbearing, if wit does not overcome the wry mundaneness of life and the timing of events is not both harmonious and believable. When a theater play is the source material, you know at least that there's a pedigree to the writing before you embark on the journey, so this blind test was something different to, let's say, Carnage (an engrossing adaptation itself). But different good.
A group of life-long friends gather at a dinner party, as the prologue already hints at cracks in the relationships between the couples coming together. The device meant to drive them towards unraveling is a 'game' wherein everyone lays their mobile phones on the table and all messages and calls are answered/viewed in public - funny enough, someone still has a Nokia! Well, the tension is palpable from the get-go and as two of the friends make a 'trade' in the hopes of mitigating fallout from an expected text, this actually proves to be the least of their problems.
As mentioned above, the first questions to answer pertain to timing and believability. The execution of the escalation scenario is convincing, in that it builds well towards a final release. However, your sense of disbelief is tested at certain points, as too much seems to be happening at once. It's inevitable and the film deals with it in a very clever way, but the premise remains questionable - that everyone gets up to so much mischief in an exciting way.
The set-up is used to deliver some relevant arguments about the nature of relationships, the meaning of trust and the way that technology works as a filter. All lives are presumed to be defined by some sort of multiplicity, of things that happen which we don't share with those around us because they are hard to explain, hurtful or simply duplicitous. In a way, it has never been so easy to deceive, while actually being just an unwanted glance away from one's reveal. The movie argues that what we ultimately see is the veneer of authenticity, so intricately holding together a web of lies, even among the thickest of friends. What it does even better is point to the fact that while there are some rules of thumb to explain the behaviour of other people, really understanding which rules apply to whom is a question of context and of prejudices.
What remains difficult to obscure is the artificiality of some of the situations - related to the need for entertaining drama. Worrying too much about surprising the audience with shock after shock is damaging not only in itself, but in tearing apart the integrity of the characters. Moreover, some meek symbolism, like the mystical eclipse of the full moon acting as a trigger for 'the unveiling', is equally unnecessary, if harmless.
Yet, it's fairly easy to transcend these inadequacies thanks to the sound build up of the atmosphere, the well rounded characters, and the depth the movie achieves in its existential commentary. Not sure I would label this a comedy, but it sure is a dinner date gone haywire, with some beautiful Italian flair to go with the ever so doubtful bio wine.
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 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.
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.
The Family Fang (2015)
After 'Bad Words', Bateman the director appears to be heading in the right direction and takes on a more ambitious, layered project. This film deals not only with a dysfunctional family, a concept that has fascinated American cinema ever since American Beauty, but also with the relation between art and life. Thematically, the family ensemble has been portrayed more incisively in the recent past (The Squid and the Whale, to name just one example with a similar character ratio), but the manner in which relationships are blurred and redefined here gives Fang a captivating spin.
We are presented with two seemingly wayward, middle-aged siblings who, it turns out, grew up in a tradition of 'intempestive art'. Alongside their eccentric parents, they enacted hoaxes of different scales in front of onlookers who were not in on the game - all with the aim of eliciting life out of the an otherwise mundane, controlled existence. As an accident reunites the family, which had drifted apart in the mean time, tensions persist, culminating when the parents disappear and the obvious question is asked: is this just another hoax?
The story works primarily because Kidman (Annie) and Bateman (Baxter), child A and child B, as their parents called them, convey an understanding that does not require explanations. It's the kind of sibling relationship that draws from so many shared experiences, joys and traumas that it defines a common frame of existence which time has difficulty in erasing. Similarly, we as an audience draw the faith required to suspend our disbelief from the energy the two control when on screen together. The questions pertaining to the philosophy of art, its authenticity and veracity, are interesting to ponder, but they only provide the backdrop to what Annie and Baxter have going on. The point of convergence between the two themes is that of control - its purpose in art, its purpose in relationship building.
This is fascinating, as control is so inherent to anything that happens in the early years within a family: the setting of constraints to the socially unrestrained spirit of childhood. It does not have to be coercive, but it is a matter of natural imprinting that occurs along the way, whether overtly or not. As adults, the struggle becomes to establish what we can (and should) control and what we need to let run freely. The mantra their father had instilled in Annie and Baxter emphasized the idea that by staying centered, one can let the surrounding chaos sweep over and past you. A lot of the time it's easier said than done. We also see that different people need different things in order to express themselves - a given, sure, but finely synthesized in Annie's qualms as an actor and Baxter's writer's block.
Where the story does fall a bit short is in the resolution. In a way, it's predictable and boring, but it's also inevitable. Inevitability is usually a good thing to have in an ending, especially in one dealing with the nature of art. Still, a stronger build up and a more resolute finale would have turned Family Fang into a really memorable piece of work. As it stands, it overemphasizes the idea that unrestrained (performance) art comes at a hidden cost both to those involved and to those affected by it. That it becomes hard to keep art and life contained. And, surely, that the price for this is too high.
Nonetheless, my newly found penchant for movies about siblings really let me enjoy this story. Perhaps just a bit more than I should have, but that's thanks to how authentic Annie and Baxter feel and the depth they lend to the experience.
A Soulful Escape
As the movie was drawing to a close, the question of whether one could really jump over an oncoming car was nagging me. Some brief research highlighted an increase of the average car height throughout recent decades to about 1.5 meters, but one could certainly go for an aggressive sports car, which only measures about 1.2 meters. The world record for high jump stands at 2.5 meters, but that's a running jump, so can you do it standing still, as the movie suggests?
Putting my metaphorical glasses back on, I'll admit my interest was piqued when the realization came about that this movie is inspired by Werner Herzog's hike from Munich to Paris, in 1974, in support of his mentor, Lotte Eisner. Here, our lead Julian is a young man institutionalized for harboring said belief of car jumping, which ends up causing a tragic accident, wherein his best friend is killed. The story kicks off with Julian's escape from the facility he was being held in, as he aims to walk over 600 km to the house where his friend's father lives, recovering after a heart attack. The point of walking is to focus all his energy towards the father's betterment, in the spirit of a 'holy' pilgrimage. Along the way, Julian meets up with Ju and Ruth, both in need of a long walk to cleanse their unhappiness. All the while, Jan is on their heels, trying to find and return Julian to the asylum.
This constitutes the main theme of the movie, a paradoxical one at that: taking on a selfish/selfless journey, an escape from how the world sees you, how you see the world and how you see yourself. The great thing is that it works really well, as the characters come off stoic and (for the most part) relatable. Julian's quest for redemption, Ju's attempt to emote again and Ruth's struggle to feel self-worthy, alongside Jan, 'the jailer', who finds himself in a purgatory of his own making, make for a soulful exploration. The gorgeous backdrop of the German countryside turns what could have otherwise been an average experience into a tactful bout of escapism. Embellished with moments of both sensitive and caricaturistic humour, the story is packaged tightly until the last fifteen minutes.
This brings me to the two limitations impairing my enjoyment. Firstly, it is guilty of romanticizing away the complexity of the story, as it needlessly and unsubtly provides outlines for both characters and themes. Secondly, the ending is drawn out and too sweet for comfort, as the mystery is shattered and the stars realign.
The reason why I would rather not dwell on these things, is because the cinematic journey managed to inspire me. Upon its conclusion, I had become all silly and was thinking about biking for days or heading out to an isolated cabin in the middle of the mountains. Director Baker- Monteys proves to be a good paysagist of the soul, if not quite the storyteller. There, everyone can be a little pretentious!
On Solitude and Defiance
It was fitting that on watching this film, I was almost alone in the cinema, because isolation and solitude are powerful themes throughout Fúsi. So when you're out by yourself, in the middle of the day, to watch an obscure Icelandic movie showing at an archaic cinema that now uses a projector rather suited for private use, than public screenings, it all kind of falls into place and reinforces the emotional investment in the whole experience.
Fúsi, a 43 year old man-child, but without the usual derogatory connotations of the term, is a tinkerer who lives with his mother, reenacts WW2 battles with his neighbour and works at a hapless job, where he is constantly bullied. Yet, what looks like a bleak and joyless existence, washes over Fúsi like a warm shower on a winter's day. His outlook on life is inhabited by a neutral positivity informed mostly through how naive and passive Fúsi seems most of the time. And all this is tested once he meets a woman who appears to take an interest in him, enabling him to be the nurturer he is at heart.
This story really hit a nerve, as I'm sure it has for many people who have ever felt alone, or love-stricken or stranded. It is a vicious portrayal of the world, which is only redeeming because Fúsi is the kind of character that takes it all in his stride. Otherwise, it gently treads the line of tragedy, but never crosses it. And surely, Fúsi is an idealized altruist with autistic tendencies, but he's still someone you can identify with, because you recognize the gestures, the emotions and the triggers within and around him.
However, the film does tend to be stereotypically simplistic in its bleakness. Whether it is the abuse Fúsi faces, his run in with the law, the relationship with his mother, these occasionally serve nothing more than to amplify traits in the character, respectively "the world", which are all too apparent to begin with. Not to mention that his romantic conception of what is acceptable really pushes the suspension of disbelief to places it should never be pushed. Yet, it is in the romance that the film manages to stay true to itself and believable, hyperbolic gestures aside. Because, hey, we've all been there and sometimes it does play out in your mind the way it all unfolds here. Or thereabouts.
So there it is, an Icelandic experience of philosophical proportions, that is quite certain to leave you ruminating at its conclusion. And empathizing, which is always a good muscle to engage.
The Girl in the Book (2015)
It's sort of ironic that I happened to watch The Girl in the Book and Diary of a Teenage Girl completely unpremeditated within the same week. Both revolve around statutory rape and portray strong female protagonists, but the stories they are a part of highlight different levels of artistic accomplishment.
Unfortunately for The Girl in the Book, it does not take the time to achieve more. As we get to know Alice, both in her youth, when she is abused by a mentoring writer, and in her young adult life, when she is handed the job of overseeing the re-release of the same writer's magnum opus, it becomes apparent that her disheveled present is rooted in this particular past. Detached, self-destructive and incapable of forming lasting relationships, she struggles for meaning and purpose in the hope of ultimately rediscovering her love of writing, her joy for living.
This gloomy predicament is anchored in Emily VanCamp's strong performance, but at a mere 86 minutes runtime, it's not enough to convincingly build her character's transformation. The worst hit is her redeeming romance with young and idealistic Emmett, your very own Marty Stu character type, which goes from zero to "one hundred reasons you should forgive me" within twenty minutes. It's a shame that for all its melodrama, it avoids dramatic weight with a vengeance, in a story bow-tied ending you see coming from miles away.
Fortunately, the film is not so much about the narrative arc, as it is about its central character, so its faults are bearable. But it's a shame, because it does little with a variation on the Gone Girl scenario about the dividing line(s) between degrees of fictional characters. The escape it sets up is therefore neither original enough, nor thorough enough to elicit your utmost attention and care at all critical junctions.
De ce eu? (2015)
Skimping on the Details
There is no doubt to me that the film is very well informed on what surrounded the real-life case of Cristian Panait and Alexandru Lele. The former, a young prosecutor in Bucharest, was pressured to initiate the criminal prosecution of the latter, a local prosecutor in Oradea. Lele had ordered the arrest of the son of a local party bigwig, on charges of being involved in a petrol smuggling ring. The political ramifications of the case were immense at the time, in an era that can arguably be identified as the worst for the rule of law in post-communist Romania, especially in relation to the complexity of the criminal/political machinations.
Tudor Giurgiu and Loredana Novak adapted this story into the semi-fictional "Why Me?". In doing so, they kept the core themes of corruption, political webs of interest and individual persecution, and molded them to fit a traditional narrative structure. What came out was the tragic story of Panait, here renamed Panduru, who is cornered into losing his mind while passing through cinematic stereotypes of political thrillers, rather than exploring the deeper roots of his anxieties. This leads to the crux of its undoing, creating a believable scenario where Panduru goes from self-confident to self-destructive within a time frame of a couple of weeks.
That is not to say that the movie is without merit. At times, it is a powerful indictment of powerlessness in the face of systemic corruption, as it effectively portrays the bullish hierarchical relationships that arise in certain bureaucracies. But as it focuses on Panduru, it has a hard time delivering an empathetic character - instead, we are served with Emilian Oprea's stiff and robotic interpretation, which occasionally engages, but never emotes. Moreover, Giurgiu employs several stereotypes and tropes you would expect from a Hollywood screenwriter/director, as lurid sex scenes of no obvious relevance and pointless mistresses spice up some unimaginative camera pans and shots, including the already classic downwards looking spiral staircase, which is complemented here with repeated battery removal procedures from some old school Nokia phones.
Perhaps I am being overly harsh, because it all comes together in a compact, competent, if rather undisciplined manner. But it is unusual to see Romanian films failing to be authentic in dialogue or setting, as what should be 2002 rarely feels farther away than 2015, while the bullishness doesn't have the expected bite. When it actually does work, like in the repeated use of the utterly condescending and demeaning expression of "boy", generally used by superiors in conversation with Panduru, you do feel the weight of the world on his shoulders, right there. It's just that the film lacks the fascinating depth that a proper analysis of the facts would have allowed.