"Death" Becomes Transylvania By Cameron Bailey

in 4th Cluj Transsilvania International Film Festival

by Cameron Bailey

Not a single vampire. Not one. Come to the Transilvania International Film Festival and no matter how much cold logic rules your brain, you expect at least a taste of something bloody. At least I did. Todd Solondz told me he came here with Palindromes just for the bragging rights back home in New York. “Guess where I am? Transylvania!”

Of course it’s movies more than Bram Stoker’s novel that have drenched that word with a million spooky connotations. It almost demands to be uttered in Bela Lugosi’s voice. But the real place lacks cobwebs and creaking doors. Cluj-Napoca, where the fourth annual TIFF took place, is in fact a city of faded baroque buildings, and Bela Lugosi did in fact make films here in the silent era. But its bustling streets are wide and open, and today they throng with thousands of university students. At night the clubs play 50 Cent, and nobody drinks blood. At least I didn’t see anybody.

As part of Transilvania’s first-ever FIPRESCI jury, I was assigned to a list of films that represented “young cinema.” These were mainly first and second features, though their directors could be as “young” as over 40. The list included films from Kyrgyzstan, Canada and Sweden, though the focus lay on films from the immediate region. Transilvania is run by festival director Tudor Giurgiu, but its films betray the dark tastes of artistic director Mihai Chirilov.

Arsen Anton Ostojic’s One Wonderful Night in Split (Ta divna Splitska noc), for instance, lurches from drug dealing to overdose to suicide. It all takes place on New Year’s Eve, generally the most depressing night of the year, on the cobbled streets of Split’s medieval ghetto. Ostojic shoots in shadowy black and white, and seems to revel in the sordid euphoria of characters so drunk, high or desperate that any act can be carried out with carefree nihilism.

Dagur Kari’s Dark Horse (Voksne Mennesker) is also shot in black and white, but reverses the recklessness of Ostojic’s characters in favour of a careful accumulation of absurdities. Daniel (Jakob Cedergren) resists all social conventions, to the point of declaring a four-year income of just seven dollars to a tax investigator at the beginning of the film. His only work is spray painting romantic signs for besotted lovers. His best friend is a very fat lab worker training to be a soccer referee. Dark Horse offers the extravagant quirks found in the early works of Jim Jarmusch and Aki Kaurismaki, as well as some of the pacing and style, but it never feels simply imitative. And the melancholy tone it develops as Daniel falls in love gives it an emotional ballast the gags alone could never achieve.

The film that won the FIPRESCI prize at Transilvania achieved both the dark ironies of One Wonderful Night in Split and the gathering human warmth of Dark Horse. Cristi Puiu’s The Death of Mr. Lazarescu (Moartea domnului Lazarescu) came to Cluj from its success at Cannes, where Alexander Payne presided over the jury that gave it the award for best film in Un Certain Regard.

Those who saw it at Cannes will know The Death of Mr. Lazarescu offered one of that festival’s best, most unlikely payoffs. A two-hour and 34 minute film that announces its conclusion in its title turns out to be an affecting, sometimes hilarious summation of the absurdities of life.

Dante Remus Lazarescu, none of whose names is accidental, is a crotchety old drunk living alone with three cats in a Bucharest apartment. He calls for an ambulance, complaining of stomach problems and a headache. Over the next six hours of his life, which are also his last six hours, he is attended by a kind of angel, in the form of a persistent nurse who guides him through the maze of Romania’s overworked and sarcastic medical professionals. One doctor examines him and exclaimes, “his liver is as big as the Parliament House.” Another orders frappucinos while preparing Lazarescu’s brain scan. All of them berate the old man for drinking himself to the point of death.

Puiu has said he’d have liked to shoot the film in real time, but he achieves the immersive effects of duration in less than half the time. In its own way this is a brisk film, pulling the viewer close to Lazarescu and his nurse, charting their course through increasingly grim waters, and doing it always with a profoundly human engagement. Early on, Lazarescu’s nurse asks him, “Are you still feeling nauseous?” He replies, “I’m feeling melancholy, ma’am.”

This, to me, is why Puiu’s film works so well, and on so many levels. It could have been made as a critique of medical bureaucracy. It could have been a doleful bleat about the tragedy of dying. It could have been purely symbolic, or political, or satiric. But Puiu insists on bringing the viewer close to the physical presence of a dying man, but at the same time also insisting on the roiling complexity and life of this man’s emotions. Lazarescu is dying, but he’s not going gently. There’s blood in him yet.