in 65th Berlinale - Berlin International Film Festival

by Alexey Gusev

It may seem strange, but within the cinema the political genre has recently experienced a steep decline. Of course, we have a lot of standard Hollywood (and Hollywood-like) B-movies about corrupted authorities at various governmental levels – usually with a thread that leads to The Very Top – but all of them are no more than a weak and emasculated plaster-cast (or, rather, plastic-cast) of the once-great Alan J. Pakula tradition. We have various TV-series on similar topics (most notably House of Cards), but politics – according to their interpretation – is just a self-contained gambling-game, even if the “game” is a game of thrones. And there are many examples of a “political tendency”, whether bold or delicate, within other genres: social dramas, policiers, sci-fi etc. But what of the other great tradition, the European one, that in former times gave us such chefs-d’œuvre as The Mattei Affair (Il caso Mattei), Man of Iron (Czlowiek z zelaza), Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion (Indagine su un cittadino al di sopra di ogni sospetto) and Z? This tradition has apparently almost totally disappeared. Exceptions – mostly in Italy – like Marco Tullio Giordana’s films or Matteo Garrone’s Gomorra do exist. They are fresh by language and important by message. And this is a consolation, given that the political genre is necessary as a regular element in a healthy overall cinematic landscape. But such examples are, regrettably, all too rare.

These days, this former “path” of cinema is all too seldom trodden. It demands the gradual, step-by-step, unwrapping of a plot – a plot which reveals that progressively wider and higher circles of power are involved in the tangled machinery of corruption. Cinema of this sort should also demand the meticulous examination of every small screw of the infernal machine’s gears – expressed with proper artistic comprehension, plus the appropriate kind of figurative images. (We must here pass over the peculiar trend among young film-makers whose earnest message amounts to the idea that “all authority figures are bastards”.)

The rarity of such films is one reason why the appearance in the Berlinale’s Panorama section of the Romanian film Why Me? (De ce eu?) – directed by Tudor Giurgiu – is so encouraging and stirring.

The film’s distinction lies not in its script, which is decent and skilful but in no way extraordinary. The story is based on real events, and concerns a young and ambitious public prosecutor who suddenly stumbles across a conspiracy involving the secret service; he then has to fight, all alone, against the mighty powers of this world. And although the original events have been somewhat fictionalized for the screenplay there is nothing grotesque or symbolic in the film. The main character’s course from naivety towards suicide is drawn by the  director with passion, but without any excitement or sweeping generalizations. Every step on this fatal path is just one link in a chain, and any excess could only obscure the inexorable logic of mounting despair that is also the logic of script itself. As a scriptwriter Giurgiu is only efficient – on that level the film probably wouldn’t deserve full-length consideration, but only brief comment and a decent star-rating out of five.

The real worth of Why Me?  lies not in the script but in the direction (this is, by the way, very unusual for the political genre). We live in an epoch where the incessant shiverings of hand-held cameras are apparently inescapable. It is an epoch where we usually see a total subjugation of image-composition and cinematography in favour of the director catching the tiniest gestures of the actors (and nothing more, as Poe would say). Modern cinema (especially in the independent sphere) is obsessed with laying bare some “secret workings of the human heart”. The camera gazes into a character’s face, desperate to find his feelings and, if possible, his thoughts; the entire tool-kit of cinematic techniques is sublimated to this purpose. It is an epoch where the prevailing obsession is the imitation of the “real” and of “documentary” (and the confusion of the two).

With very few exceptions all of the trends mentioned above (which in fact constitute a single trend) were very evident in Panorama films at this year’s Berlinale. This helps to explain how Why Me? managed to “cut a dash” via its intelligent – even intrepid – use of all possible elements of classical cinematic language.

Giurgiu deploys the most exact and precise montage and refined compositions. There is a faultless handling of the transitions from close-ups to long-shots and back – each example is soundly motivated and full of meaning. The director also compiles exquisite rhymes within the film’s construction. For example, he includes two episodes shot on the same staircase. One is “of love”: full of passion, deep breathing and intense lighting; Giurgiu also makes much use of fragmentary glimpses of the ornate, elegantly cast-iron, grille-like railings that adorn the staircase, which provide a rhythmic-graphic accompaniment to the scene. The other – an hour later, and after the ruining of the protagonist’s hopes, is “of fear”: this sequence is slow, nervous, formless and illuminated by the phantasmal green glow of cell-phone.

To find all this within Berlinale 2015’s Panorama section is rather like the sudden intrusion of a well-educated gentleman into the company of noisy, enthusiastic but half-illiterate youngsters. Even the simplest and most routine shots are developed here with remarkable subtlety and elegance

The result is ode to paranoia, more than two hours in duration, notable for the exemplary cohesion of its grammatical structure. This construction has two instances of “defect”; they necessarily stand out, but do not destroy the overall “wholeness” of the structure itself.

The first, relating to a police search, is the only scene in film where the director’s point of view is “entrusted” to some character – the television cameraman who is present at the action; what we are watching is the footage which he himself is shooting. This sudden change is, technically speaking, a “mistake”. But there was real footage in the police archives taken during the events upon which the scene is based – which Giurgiu came across and (notwithstanding the classicism of his approach in  the rest of the film) couldn’t resist the temptation to reshoot as closely as possible, with the same movements (of the camera and of individuals within the frame), same dialogue, and so on. And this scene turned out to be one of the wildest in the film.

The second scene is the final one, concerning suicide. Behind the desperate hero one can see church domes. At first glance this seems to be – in the context of previous discussions about “crusaders” and “no angels in this world” – a striking example of bad taste. But the point is that the rooftop where this scene was shot is the real one where the person upon whom the screenplay is based actually committed suicide in 2002.  So maybe, the presence of these domes in the background were his bad taste, rather than the director’s.

Perhaps, it’s too early to state that we have now a new, Romanian, Elio Petri. At this stage Giurgiu is closer to the level of a Damiano Damiani. To earn the Petri comparison Giurgiu would need to come up with denser screenplays and a higher level of conclusions. Tudor Giurgiu’s film is about one man, his honour, his despair and his circumstances (important and indicative but essentially private). Any Elio Petri film rises to another level and talks, ultimately, about Man, World, God, and Justice. Giurgiu’s story is very good, but he does not express himself with capital letters.

Moreover, Giurgiu is not devoted solely to the political genre – he is no less interested in horror and fantasy films. And so, possibly, Why Me? might remain his sole attempt in this field (I hope it won’t).

Giurgiu understands (and comprehends) very well what cinema structure is and how it works – in general, not just within the limits of a specific genre. His kind of comprehension could be, most likely, effective in other genres too – and could refresh them. This time he chose the  political genre, and the political genre was therefore lucky. But apparently nowadays it can only reckon on occasional examples of such luck.

Edited by Neil Young