From Second to First

in 8th Reykjavík International Film Festival

by Nicole Santé

Freedom, prosperity and wealth: these were the dreams of the people east of the Iron Curtain in the last century. Or so the people to the west of this man-made division liked to think. Was it all bad in the old communist world? Is it so much better in our modern society of unbridled capitalism? Two movies in RIFF’s New Visions category shed new light on the old and new worlds.

Romanian film Adalbert’s Dream (Visul lui Adalbert, 2011) and Russian Golden Puffin winner Twilight Portrait (Portret v sumerkakh, 2011) couldn’t be more different: the first is a black comedy depicting the absurdities of Communist bureaucracy in 1980’s Romania, the latter a bleak, disturbing, cynical picture of modern Russia, where the law of the jungle applies and solidarity — one of communism’s principles — is nowhere to be found. But each film in its own way comments on the transition from communism to democracy — or to capitalism, if you prefer.

The best order in which to watch these two films is to save the Romanian one for last. That is, if you like to end on a lighter note. Twilight Portrait will definitely leave you gasping for air and desperate for a ray of hope. Director Angelina Nikonova shot the film on virtually no budget, with mainly non-professional actors (the exception being actor, producer and co-writer Olga Dykhovichnaya in the leading role) The director does not spare women in her movie: they are the obvious victims in a dog-eat-dog society, where no man can be trusted — especially those who should be the protectors: the husband (who may turn out to be a coward and a leech) or the police (who in this movie are even more corrupt and unscrupulous than most of us could imagine).

Protagonist Marina tries not only to survive, but to improve the cold, callous world she lives in. She is a social worker, looking out for women and children who have fallen victim to frustrated, violent alcoholics, and who have failed to benefit from the transition to capitalism. Marina sometimes feels powerless; when she herself becomes a victim of police brutality, she completely loses faith in civilized solutions. She decides to take matters into her own hands, and does so in an unexpected way. Nikonova does not permit the viewer much breathing space. The film takes the audience to the rotten core of dysfunctional Russian society: broken families, violence, abuse, alcoholism, nihilism. Only very rarely and briefly do signs of tenderness and understanding break the iron grip around the viewer’s throat.

Modern Russian society, pictured this way, may make us nostalgic for old communist ideology, in which people at least pretended to care for one another. Gabriel Achim considers himself part of the Romanian New Wave, but rides his wave in a different direction. Unlike most of his colleagues, he doesn’t opt for harsh realism but rather for magnifying the absurdities of a lost society. Adalbert’s Dream is funny, original, colourful and delightfully over the top. But this is also a pretty accurate interpretation of the way things were back then, just before the Romanian Revolution. The title refers to an instructional film, made for the benefit of workers in a steel factory and also, of course, to impress the important delegation of party members visiting the factory. The presentation of the film goes horribly wrong, ending with an accident resulting from corruption and opportunism: inescapable symptoms — or rather, causes — of all failing ideologies. Just as in Twilight Portrait, people are just trying to survive in a n imperfect society, which is being dehumanized by the drive for perfection. The rules that have been created leave no room for inevitable human failures — or everyday human behaviour.

Achim uses absurd humour and mixes different techniques: for example, he tries out some new camera movements (though not always successfully). Adalbert’s Dream may not be perfect, but in a New Visions competition that was dominated by doom and depression, Achim’s film was a bright light on the horizon of a brave new world.