Layers Of Oppression

in 21st Transilvania International Film Festival, Cluj-Napoca

by Tommaso Tocci

Romanian cinema showed itself once again unafraid to plunder the depths of the human soul at the 2022 edition of the Transilvania International Film Festival. Lighting up the city of Cluj-Napoca for the 21st year, the event showcased local features across three different sections of the programme, otherwise filled with an abundance of noteworthy and engaging usual suspects from the international circuit. The festival opened with Phyllis Nagy’s Call Jane (2022), followed by a screening of Golden Lion winner Happening (L’evenement, 2021) by Audrey Diwan. And while the importance and significance of both were not lost on anyone who had previously seen them at their premiers in Berlin (2022) and Venice (2021) retrospectively, by the time the TIFF kicked off the world had already taken a further step into darkness. News of the U.S. Supreme Court’s new ruling on abortion rights hit midway through the festival, making it more difficult to avoid thinking about how many films in the Romanian selection depended on the suffering of women as the cornerstone of their narrative. 

Rarely related to a single individual, such oppression is often the result of a deep intersection of social systems, beliefs, and political circumstances. Bogdan George Apetri’s Miracle (Miracol, 2021) was among the higher-profile titles screened, and the second part of a proposed trilogy on crime, punishment and abuse of power. Here the rape and murder of a young girl comes as an indirect consequence of an incognito attempt to terminate a pregnancy, and Apetri’s now-trademark device of splitting the story between different perspectives – despite advancing the technique already used in Unidentified (Neidentificat, 2020) to intriguing effect – isolates the attacked woman even more than she already was, alone in a taxi, lectured and ordered around by older men.

An analytically bleak viewing experience, Miracle is topped by an impressive trio of debut features by women when it comes to layering multiple oppressive superstructures. In Alina Grigore’s Blue Moon (Crai Nou, 2021) the highly subjective point of view of protagonist Irina is constantly channeled and limited by an abusive extended family. With a focus so narrow that it leaves many relatives menacingly unknown (the superb camerawork making the most of this motif), Irina’s tour de force quest to attempt to leave possesses a manic energy that underlines the unsettling limitations blood ties can impose on an individual, bordering on literal imprisonment.

Interestingly working by substitution, Immaculate (Immaculat, 2021) by Monica Stan and George Chiper-Lillemark imagines a parallel environment for its protagonist to flourish – a secluded world of recovering drug addicts which is an inversion of reality.

The film sees Daria made ‘special’ in contrast to the outside world which put her there after, once again, denying her agency through a boyfriend, a mother and an unwanted addiction. And yet in this fresh and accomplished debut everything evens out in the end, as to demonstrate that inverted realities will only get you so far. 

However, it is Clouds of Chernobyl (Anul Pierdut 1986, 2022) that truly hits the jackpot. A disturbing piece of filmmaking which piles everything on top of unlucky Irina: an aggressive husband who’s often away, a mother-in-law who wants to force her to have a dangerous abortion at home, all under a communist regime that made them illegal in the first place, and in a village that is close to the Ukrainian border and impacted by the nuclear fallout from Chernobyl. An already untenable situation made claustrophobically explosive, where the domestic tension is heightened by first-time director Ligia Ciornei to great effect. Based on real-life accounts of women’s lives from the time, Clouds of Chernobyl encapsulates their struggle as well as an entire festival’s worth of impossible predicaments in which these characters are placed and perhaps because of this it creates a lasting impact in the viewer’s mind. It is auspicious that, when so many others couldn’t, somehow it is Irina who manages to escape her living room and meet the audience at the tail end of the communist era. To us in 2022, the ellipsis is both worrying and merciful.

Tommaso Tocci
Edited by Pamela Jahn