Beyond Romanian Realism: A Charmingly Challenging Comedy Mihai Fulger on "Wedding in Bessarabia"

in 4th Durres International Film Summerfest

by Mihai Fulger

The Balkan World competition of the fourth Durrës International Film Summerfest included six feature films produced in and relevant to the region. The International Critics Prize (FIPRESCI Prize) was awarded to a Romania-Moldova-Luxembourg coproduction, Wedding in Bessarabia (Nunta în Basarabia). The second feature of the Romanian director Napoleon Helmis (a.k.a. Nap Toader), premiered nationally six years after The Italian Girls (Italiencele) from 2004, is a cross-cultural comedy in the tradition of Damien O’Donnell’s cult classic East is East (1999). It should also be noted that the cinema of the Balkans has a long history of depicting inter-ethnic conflicts in the region (especially those of the 1990s in films of recent years).

Vlad, a young music conductor living in Bucharest, has recently married Vica, a younger pianist born in Bessarabia, who had come to Romania to study at the Conservatory. Trying to collect money for their new household, they go, together with Vlad’s widowed mother and uncle “Johnny” (a self-proclaimed “international talent agent”), to Vica’s native city of Kishinev, where they plan a second wedding. The couple aims at getting abundant gifts, in cash and goods, from her relatives and family friends, followers of local traditions. As Vica’s father is a reputed and respected Moldovan poet, prospects look bright for the bride and groom, but godfather-businessman Valera, her brother-in-law, stands in the way of the couple’s happiness. The wedding turns into a competition between the Moldovan side and the (outnumbered) Romanian one, in which not even Russian roulette is left aside.

Film buffs can easily identify references to well-known international films such as Lars von Trier’s Europa, Emir Kusturica’s Arizona Dream or Milos Forman’s The Firemen’s Ball (Horí, má panenko), to which Romanian ones could add Nae Caranfil’s Philanthropy (Filantropica), a comedy that has become increasingly popular over the last decade. There is, notwithstanding, a major problem for non-Romanian/Moldovan spectators, and that is to understand the actual background of the story.

The film starts by providing a few bits of useful information: Bessarabia, the Eastern part of the old Romanian principality of Moldavia, was incorporated into the Russian Empire in 1812, then into Romania in 1918; during World War II, it was brought under Soviet control, but in 1991, at the time of the final dissolution of the USSR, it became independent, as the Republic of Moldova. Even with all this information, Wedding in Bessarabia requires some cognitive effort from the “foreign” audience. Fortunately, the film is full of delightful situational humor and is well-paced and skillfully edited (sometimes the director pushes the speed pedal, resorting to pixilation sequences in order not to lose the tempo). The dialogue is witty and so are the observations (starting from the initial train scene, when Vica symptomatically describes the switch from the Romanian rails and wheels to the Moldovan ones), the performances are good, sometimes even great (the male lead, Vlad Logigan, is worthy of a special mention, as a very promising debutant actor), and so viewers open to the “exotic” world on screen will find themselves on the edge of their seats until the last shot.

Wedding in Bessarabia has also some weak points, the most obvious of which are related to the narrative: carried away by the ambition to cover exhaustively the relations between the two countries and peoples, Napoleon Helmis (who also wrote the script, loosely based on his own personal experience as a Romanian married to the daughter of a celebrated Moldovan poet) fails to develop completely the relations between the main characters (even between the two young lovers, which is even more blameworthy if we think that the film was designed to be not only a social-cultural comedy, but also a romantic one), and the ending is not the most felicitous one. However, it should also be said that this is the first feature film that aims at exploring honestly and impartially — but nevertheless in a comic manner — the complex and tense relations between Romanians and Moldovans. It’s not every day that you can watch a new comedy as provocative and stimulating as Wedding in Bessarabia.