The spirit of a cinematic event permeates the city of Cluj, creating an atmosphere of anticipation and excitement. At least the heart of the city transforms into a sprawling cinematic hub, where diverse platforms come together to create a unified experience. A museum, a church, or a square become venues for screenings and film concerts, immersing audiences in a spectacular extravaganza.
There is an unexpected twist as well. Instead of premiering in Cannes, Venice, or Berlin, Cristi Puiu’s MMXX makes its debut in Cluj. Puiu, one of the prominent cineastes of our time, had seemingly fallen into an unspoken censure following a series of controversial statements and interviews. However, the director returns to the big screen, creating another epic film – at least in terms of duration. The film features four lengthy scenes that are loosely interconnected, each filmed in a single continuous shot or in real-time proximity. The first meeting between a therapist and a new client, preparations for an anniversary party accompanied by attempts to resolve hospital issues over the phone, doctors engaging in conversation while awaiting test results, and a police interrogation taking place on the day of a funeral. The film presents different settings and contexts in each episode and only a few elements grant it a formal coherence: some characters transitioning from scene to scene, and the time frame marked by a year represented in Roman numerals in the title, symbolizing the peak of the Coronavirus pandemic. Considering Puiu’s stance on the pandemic measures, one might have anticipated the film to be an almost propagandistic (or rather anti-propagandistic) piece. However, the director maintains his sense of proportion and approaches the subject matter with subtle shades of irony, occasionally more discernible but at times almost imperceptible. Even within the relaxed anthology format, Puiu succeeds in captivating the audience’s attention. Four sketches, highlighting director’s undeniable mastery in working with actors, constructing mise-en-scène, and crafting dialogue. Nevertheless, the narrative puzzle pieces remain scattered, leaving the film with an aftertaste of a compilation of anecdotes or a series of exercises.
The program of national cinema, viewed by the FIPRESCI jury, turned out to be quite eclectic, in a positive sense, ranging from genre movies to socio-political documentaries. Stylistic and thematic diversity provided an opportunity to explore the new Romanian cinema from sometimes opposite angles and accordingly see the country itself in completely different guises.
Cătălina Tesar and Dana Bunescu’s The Chalice. Of Sons and Daughters sheds light on the distinctive matrimonial tradition of the Romani Cortorari community. The bride’s family pays the dowry to the groom’s parents, in return gaining the right to keep the groom’s chalice – a sacred object indicating status in society – until a male heir is born into the newly formed family. Such a way of life gives rise to numerous social and economic issues, gender discrimination, and even the alarming practice of selective abortion. An important and complex subject-matter is shaded by a chaotic and overloaded narrative, giving the impression of an ethnographic film with a hint of exoticism, which the authors themselves seem to have unsuccessfully attempted to avoid.
The film-diary My Muslim Husband by Daniel and Alexandra Lizeta Bărnuți portrays the intricacies of a relationship between a man who has embraced Islam and a woman faced with important decisions. The directors document their own personal lives, a task that demands considerable perseverance. However, despite the apparent high level of transparency and intimacy, certain critical aspects are inadvertently or deliberately overlooked, preventing genuine immersion. While it is understandable that excessive inquisitiveness may not align with the desired traits of a religious man, the film would undoubtedly gain from further contemplation.
In Dani Saracut’s Blue Planet, a group of five middle-aged working-class men, who were once members of a rock band that broke up many years ago, make the decision to reunite and create a music video for their most popular song, which shares the film’s title. Their everyday lives, often filled with petty concerns, serve as a representation of contemporary Romania. Through the power of music, these men find solace, and the humble studio becomes a rare sanctuary amidst a backdrop of worries and economic instability.
A more successful example of ironic documentary is Eagles from Taga by Iulian Manuel Ghervas and Adina Popescu. The film narrates the tale of perpetual underdogs: a rural football team that consistently lingers at the bottom of the lower division. These heroes, reminiscent of Sisyphus or Stoics, tenaciously continue playing football against all odds. Deliberately shunning pretentiousness, the film opts for a straightforward and occasionally intentionally clumsy approach. In terms of tone, it draws inspiration from Eastern European documentaries, particularly aligning with the films of the Yugoslav Black Wave. The inclusion of regional officials and “people’s events” seamlessly fits within the framework of the communist era of the 1960s and 1970s.
The program also featured a fiction film that explores the life and traditions of a contemporary village. In Paul Negoescu’s Men of Deeds, the story initially revolves around an unlucky police officer and his aspirations of owning an orchard and a house on a hill. Intermittently, the film transcends the realm of a simple village comedy and delves into the suspenseful atmosphere of a thriller, exposing a corrupt system of power. It presents a portrait of a conformist policeman, more akin to an accomplice in criminal activities than a guardian of the law. However, a sudden awakening of conscience and a sense of duty alter his path. On each such occasion, though, the film swiftly reverts to its comical anti-detective genre. Ultimately, it all culminates in a Tarantino-esque blood-soaked action scene, where tragedy and comedy harmoniously blend together to form a cohesive whole.
Appreciating well-crafted genre films is always a satisfying experience. Bogdan Mirică’s Boss (produced by Corneliu Porumboiu) tells the story of a quiet ambulance driver who decides to commit an armed robbery resulting in tragic consequences. The film’s initial act unfolds at a slow pace, occasionally taking plot turns that feel somewhat out of place. The primary drawback lies in the poorly written romantic storyline, characterized by artificial dialogues and a female lead who embodies outdated stereotypes influenced by the male gaze, ranging from the femme fatale to the manic pixie dream girl archetype. However, as the film reaches its midpoint, it gains momentum and truly captivates the audience. Other genre clichés are incorporated more organically into the narrative. This achievement can largely be attributed to a charismatic protagonist, a brooding yet compelling soundtrack, and visually striking neon aesthetics. Consequently, the film manages to create a stylish and gritty neo-noir atmosphere, paying homage to a range of classic movies such as Michael Mann’s Thief and Nicolas Winding-Refn’s Drive.
In Mihai Mincan’s To the North, in a desperate pursuit of a better life, two refugees, Dumitru from Romania and Georgi from Bulgaria, embark on a perilous journey aboard a cargo ship traveling from Europe to America. The setting itself is remarkable – a colossal vessel filled with shipping containers gracefully navigating the Atlantic waves: a metaphor for the cold and cruel global world. The crew consists of people from Taiwan and the Philippines, resulting in communication among the characters through a combination of sign language, English, and Spanish. This evokes memories of Valeska Grisebach’s Western or the lesser-known Invisible Waves by Pen-ek Ratanaruang, where passengers on a liner – people from East Asian countries – communicate with each other in “foreign English”. However, despite these noteworthy audiovisual solutions and intriguing ideas, To the North fails to avert its own downfall. It possesses tremendous potential but ultimately sinks in the abyss of its weightiness and pretentious allusions to biblical themes.
In Day of the Tiger, the debut film by Andrei Tănase, a zoo veterinarian, who is still grieving the loss of her newborn son, discovers her husband’s infidelity. This seemingly ideal setup could serve as an introduction to a dark psycho-drama. However, the film takes an entirely different trajectory by employing and tweaking a familiar plot device centered around a day of disastrous events. The turning point occurs when a tiger escapes from the zoo. The real allure lies in the mesmerizing scenes featuring the majestic animal. People and their individual experiences are pushed to the background, taking secondary or tertiary roles. The tiger becomes the focal point as the film follows its journey. At times, it even adopts elements of a road movie, western or a legendary tale of the hunt for a mythical creature, akin to the adventures of the Holy Grail. It is no coincidence that the climax unfolds within the confines of a medieval, Transylvanian castle. As a result, melancholic and monotonous life transforms into a surreal adventure, brimming with vivid colors.
The FIPRESCI Prize was awarded to Between Revolutions directed by Vlad Petri. The film essay revolves around the correspondence between two women, Zahra from Iran and Maria from Romania, who initially crossed paths in the 1970s at the University of Bucharest (during the Ceausescu era, it was customary for young Iranians to study in Romania). However, their lives were eventually separated by state borders and historical tumult. The letters exchanged between Zahra and Maria are filled with a mix of tenderness and bitterness, doom and determination, fear and hope. The film juxtaposes two worlds that, despite their differences, share a common thread: the patriarchal system compelling individuals to conform to predetermined roles, suppressing their true essence.
The creators incorporate archival footage and scenes from documentary films depicting Romania and Iran during the 1970s and 1980s (including excerpts from Hossein Torabi’s monumental work, For Freedom). The film navigates the delicate balance between fantasy and truth, blurring the lines which divide documentary and fiction. In a manner reminiscent of Chris Marker’s approach, a fictional letter conveys a deeper truth than a document. Unfortunately, the subject matter remains highly relevant today. It is unlikely that this movie will be screened in Iranian cinemas. Nonetheless, it manages to find its way to viewers, reaching them through underground film screenings, much like Jafar Panahi’s Offside.
Edited by Birgit Beumers
© FIPRESCI 2023