"Making Waves: New Romanian Cinema," screening from November 29 through December 5, continues the Film Society of Lincoln Center's annual survey of contemporary Romanian cinema. Films from this country have retained interest among followers of world cinema since the 1990's Romanian New Wave, which introduced audiences to such directors as Cristi Puiu, Corneliu Porumboiu, and Cristian Mungiu, whose latest film Beyond the Hills (pictured above) closes the festival.
As usual, the festival features not only new and recent films, but also retrospectives: this year, the films of influential 70s and 80s filmmaker Alexandru Tatos will be featured with a mini-retro of three of his films: Red Apples (1976), Anastasia Gently Passes (1979), and Sequences (1982). This year, the Film Society has admirably made this series more accessible to the general public by offering free screenings and panel discussions. Below are reviews of four recent films screening in the series.
OF SNAILS AND MEN (Tudor Giurgiu)
Giurgiu's second feature takes place in early 90's Romania, during the rapid privatization and Westernization that took place in the immediate post-Communist period following the fall of dictator Nicolae Ceausescu. Reportedly based on a true story, the film centers on an auto factory that's going out of business and whose owner plans to sell the factory to a French company who will convert it to an escargot canning plant. The factory's union leader (Andi Vasluianu) comes up with a wild plan to raise money for the workers to buy the factory and save their jobs: having himself and all his fellow workers travel to Bucharest to sell their sperm.
Not for nothing has this film been frequently compared to The Full Monty; Of Snails and Men has equal crowd-pleasing ambitions, offering gentle humor and colorful characters. Unfortunately, the political and social commentary lacks bite due to its general blandness and tendency to traffic in broadly stereotypical characters: the venal factory boss, the working class hero, the whorish secretary with a heart of gold. The story is set against the backdrop of Michael Jackson's 1992 visit to Romania for a concert, but there's little attempt to connect that to what happens here. Of Snails and Men is a competently made film that goes down easy, but has little lasting resonance.
(Nov. 29, 7pm; Nov. 30, 3:30pm)
BEST INTENTIONS (Adrian Sitaru)
Sitaru's second feature, with its glimpse into Romania's health care system, immediately brings to mind a classic of the Romanian New Wave: Cristi Puiu's 2005 film The Death of Mr. Lazarescu. While not as accomplished or revelatory as that earlier film, Best Intentions has some interesting formal tricks up its sleeve that it uses to add some fascinating dimensions to its story and characters. In its beautifully choreographed long-take opening sequence, we are introduced to the main character Alex (Bogdan Dumitrache) arguing on the phone with a work colleague, arguing in person with his girlfriend Delia (Aline Grigore) because she has thrown away an old beloved piece of his underwear, and most pertinently for the plot, gets some very bad news by telephone. The bad news is that Alex's mother (Natasha Raab) has suffered a stroke and is in the hospital. Alex makes the long trip from Bucharest to his hometown to be by her bedside. Along the way, he gets lots of advice from both family members and strangers about how his mother can get the best care.
Alex emerges as a man who has never quite grown up, and is ill-equipped to deal with the possibility of the death of a parent. He deals with this by becoming an extreme control freak, suspicious of everyone around him, and alienating all who try to help him. Sitaru frames much of the film from the POV of many different characters, frequently having the deliver their lines directly to the camera. Interestingly, the only major character whose perspective we are not privy to is Alex; we are made to be observers of his behavior. Best Intentions may be modestly small-scale, but is quite a fascinating character study.
(Nov. 30, 6:15pm)
THREE DAYS TILL CHRISTMAS (Radu Gabrea)
Gabrea's hybrid documentary/fiction film explores the final days in the lives of Nicolae and Elena Ceausescu (December 22-25, 1989), as they attempted to flee the revolution that deposed them and was the occasion for their execution on Christmas Day. Gabrea mixes archical footage (street demonstrations, TV broadcasts), reenactments, and interviews with people involved, to viscerally convey the violent chaos of the time. Gabrea eschews footage of the real Ceausescus in favor of employing actors (Constantin Cojocaru and Victoria Cocias) to portray the couple, giving us a speculative view from their perspective, as they receive violent comeuppance for the crimes they have committed against their people. While Gabrea never quite convinces us that this mash-up approach illuminates the story any more than a traditional documentary or dramatic method would, this is still a worthwhile experiment.
(Dec. 2, 7pm; Dec. 3, 4pm)
EVERYBODY IN OUR FAMILY (Radu Jude)
Jude's third feature brilliantly expands on the promise of his remarkable 2009 film The Happiest Girl in the World, with this disturbingly dark comedy. (His previous short feature, 2010's A Film For Friends, screens at this year's festival on Dec. 1, 9pm.) Marius (Serban Pavlu), a divorced dentist, wants to use his restricted child-visitation time to take his daughter Sofia (Sofia Nicolaescu, in a wonderfully adorable performance) to the seaside during his vacation. He encounters numerous obstacles along the way, getting into a vicious argument with his father while trying to borrow a car for the trip, and finally coming up against the resistance of his ex-wife Otilia (Mihaela Sirbu) and her new husband Aurel (Gabriel Spahiu), who claim Sofia is too sick to take out. Marius, while being far from a conventional hero, initially has our sympathy for his plight. But this becomes much more complicated as the frustrated Marius gives in to his rage at the situation and, while spewing viciously profane invective at his perceived enemies, goes to extreme ends to try to get what he wants.
Radu Jude nicely conveys the increasingly violent claustrophobia of his scenario by structuring the film in a way that approximates real time and enveloping us in the extreme kitchen-sink emotion on display. Jude proves himself to be a talent worthy of mention alongside the other celebrated stalwarts of the Romanian New Wave.
(Nov. 30, 8:30pm; Dec. 5, 2pm)
For more information on these and other films in the series, and to purchase tickets, visit the Film Society of Lincoln Center's website