After two years in prison, Matilda is granted a 24-hour temporary release. Not willing to return, she plans to escape, flee the country and start afresh. But before the day is over, Matilda must reconnect with her troubled past - the family who rejected her, her estranged ex-lover and, most of all, the kid she left behind. The struggle for a new life reminds her that freedom may be just one choice away. Written by
Romanian director Apetri's powerful Outbound has some of the tragic intensity, at least in its ending, of De Sica's Bicycle Thief or René Clément's Forbidden Games. First-timer Apetri, aided on the screenplay by a trio of experienced writers, has made one of the best films to come out of the new Romanian cinema. It takes place when a woman prisoner who's served two years of a five-year sentence gets a one-day pass to attend her mother's funeral. She has no intention of turning herself back in. Her day is a chronicle of desperation and hope, beginning with her brother and ending with a doomed train ride. Whatever the crime was, it seems the sullen-faced Matilda (Ana Ularu) wasn't the perpetrator but instead has taken the hit for Paul, the father of her 8-year-old son Toma and a thoroughly sleazy character. Matilda and Paul made a deal, but just see if she can hold him to it. But she has other scores to settle and hard knocks to take.
The Romanians show a penchant for methodical real-time intensity and Apetri is no different, though a key to the power here is a willingness to elide unnecessary details, even maintain a degree of mystery, in the interest of focusing, as the great Italians did, on a few powerful scenes. Even if Matilda is out of jail and some key scenes are enacted in a wide, desolate open space designated by the original title, Periferic, she still seems to have the bars around her, holding her in the claustrophobia of a life that went wrong early. The actress, with a face as simple as a boy's, has a fixed, sullen glare that sticks in your mind.
The narrative is in three parts focused on three names: Andri, Paul, and Toma. We find out very vividly who they are. In a prologue Matilda (Ana Ularu) leaves prison on a 24-hour pass to attend her mother's funeral. Right outside the gate she meets up with a fat trucker (Ion Sapdaru) in a sleeveless shirt: it's summer, and everybody is sweaty. Her plan is to collect money to pay this man later to drive her to the port of Constanta, where she will catch a ship to smuggle her out of the country.
The first stop is Andri (Andi Vasluianu), Matilda's handsome brother. He's not pleased to see her, though he can't entirely hide fraternal feeling. She has disgraced the family, and also ill used him. His wife Lavinia (Ioana Flora) is even more openly hostile. Nonetheless they reluctantly take her to the funeral, and in that ride we feel Matilda's determination and toughness. Lavinia's insults only make her smile. She ingratiates herself with no one, smoking a cigarette outside the cemetery and walking away from the table at the al fresco dinner afterward. Andri is shocked, maybe pleased, to learn he has an 8-year-old nephew, but he's not willing to take Matilda's son in, and Matilda leaves.
The next meeting is with the abusive, self-indulgent Paul. He will give Matilda only a fraction of the payoff, saying it's not due till five years are up. He has brutal sex with her, then reveals that their son, Toma (Timotei Duma), whom he was supposed to be caring for, is in an orphanage. So that becomes an additional stop before the truck ride to the ship, and it turns into a train ride, with more brutal surprises and the shattering finale, which yet has a poetic rightness about it.
The tight schedule Matilda must follow -- she has to meet the trucker by evening and must escape before the prison knows she's missing -- heightens all the action, but Apetri's directing never feels rushed and makes every minute count. Ularu may seem one-note at times, but her unwavering drive is the key to Outbound's urgency.
Cristian Mungiu of 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days co-wrote the original story. Marius Panduru of Police, Adjective did the warm, brown-tinged photography.
Outbound has shown at Locarno, Warsaw and Toronto. Seen and reviewed as part of New Directors, New Films, the series co-presented by the Film Society of Lincoln Center and the Museum of Modern Art, New York, from March 23 through April 3, 2011.
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