She Dragged Me Through the Streets of Bucharest

in 5th CinePécs Moveast International Film Festival

by Ulrik Eriksen

The Romanian film revolution is alive and well, four years after it all started with The Death of Mr. Lazarescu. Vital life signs were apparent at CinePécs – The 5th festival for East European film in Pécs, Hungary. Among the more or less average films in the competition section, the festival programmers had found a real diamond: the International festival premiere of Andrei Gruzsniczki’s stunning debut feature, The Other Irene. How and why this film has gone under the radar of the A-festivals since its national premiere in May is one big mystery.

Gruzsniczki’s film follows much of the structure, themes and style of his peers Christi Puiu and Corneliu Poromboiu: it’s a somewhat simple tale of an average man struggling with the system, shot with long takes and meticulously acted. Aurel works as a security guard at a big shopping mall in Bucharest, and lives with his wife Irina. They both grew up in a small village in the mountains, but Irina, restless and unsatisfied, wanted to move to the big city. Her occupation is more mysterious. She works for some kind of (shady) energy company, gets paid on a day to day basis and, all of a sudden, they want to send her off to Egypt for a month. Aurel is skeptical, but doesn’t want to come across as a party pooper. After 30 days, she comes back a bit tanned, quite a bit more distant, and leaves again for Cairo soon after.

As the day goes by, Ariel gets less and less communication from his wife, to the point that when she’s not turning up at the airport when she’s supposed to, everyone other than Ariel is unsurprised. She has left him for bigger opportunities, we think. But then he receives the shocking news. Apparently, Irina has taken her own life, just before she was supposed to leave.

In a way the film is told through the eyes of Aurel but, as a viewer, we always have the feeling of knowing a tad more than him: maybe because he is a small village guy in a big city? The director Gruzsniczki knows how to use our smug feeling of superiority for what it’s worth, and also send it back at us like a boomerang.

The shock and disbelief soon turns Aurel into a man of action. As a kind of low talking, unassuming and serene version of John McClane (Die Hard), he goes on a personal mission to ascend (he is an avid mountain climber) – not a terrorist infected skyscraper – but something almost as insurmountable: the Romanian and Egyptian bureaucracy.

The rest of the movie is a Kafkaesque journey through slow paper mills and quiet waiting rooms. But if you think that sounds dull, you haven’t experienced Andrei Gruzsniczki’s masterly handling of this material. Though the pacing of the film is slow, we are captivated by the many mysteries all the way: What happened to Irina? Was it a murder? Was she a victim of white slavery? Is she actually dead? And who was she really?

In the center of all this is tireless Aurel (superbly acted by Andi Vasluianu). To describe him we need to use seeming negations: subservient but also resourceful, anxious but also fearless, naive but also a disbeliever. In a picture of him he is in full mountaineering gear on top of an imposing mountain, the contrast between the clumsy appearance of Aurel in the big city, and his radiant confidence in the mountains is striking. It’s a big clue to what kind of a man we – and the Romanian/Egyptian bureaucrats – are dealing with.  But it’s also a precise way of depicting one of the films important (and pertinent) themes: the vulnerability of migrating people, separated from their roots, trying to find their footing in a new world.

Seeing the film I came to remember a classic American country song called “Streets of Baltimore” about a couple that leaves the farm and moves to the big city. Every night after work, she drags him through the streets of Baltimore, and at one point he gives up: “I soon learned she loved those bright lights more than she loved me”, he concludes. If only Irina was that easy to decipher.

Edited by Steven Yates