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Although Romanian cinema has been 'mainstreaming' of late, this year
has brought some old-school/new-school movies received to widespread
critical acclaim, like Cristian Mungiu's Bacalaureat (Graduation) or
Bogdan Mirica's Caini (Dogs). Both pictures, alongside Puiu's
Sieranevada, were premiered at Cannes and between them they picked up
the Un Certain Regard prize (Dogs) and the best director prize
(Mungiu). Interestingly enough, Sieranevada will be Romania's push for
the Academy Awards Foreign Film category, in spite of being the most
demanding of the three movies.
At almost three hours' breadth, preponderantly shot inside an apartment of fifty square meters and with more than ten characters coming together for a forty-day memorial service since the passing of the family's patriarch, it amounts to a real-time experience of the event. There isn't a lot of narrative to go about: we start with the oldest son, Lary, and his wife, Laura, dropping off some shopping and organizing the evening for their child, before setting off to the family apartment, where everyone else is gathering. In spite of being late, most guests arrive after them, until the apartment is overflowing with a heterogeneous, inter-generational group of people and their many opinions. The event takes place just around the Charlie Hebdo shooting, which sets the stage for a prolonged conspiracy theory discussion about 9/11. But seemingly countless topics are sprung to life, whether in the bedroom (the story of an abusive husband), in the kitchen (communism versus monarchy versus religion), in the small office (the memorial service traditions), the dining room (the convergence point for most discussions) or even the tight hallway (an inebriated stranger dropping in), from where we constantly pivot. We only escape the apartment once and, really, it makes you wish you were back inside, after a vicious public scene caused by a ridiculous triviality.
And so it goes on for most of its runtime, brimming with family tension, personal frustrations and everyday minutia. If anything, Sieranevada has no actual climax, but it elevates smalltalk to an art form, masterfully managing an engrossing and complex conversational ebb and flow between characters you struggle to familiarize yourself with. It will take quite a while to get to grips with who is who and how everyone is related, which is part of the reason why the movie is so demanding, requiring your attention throughout. But if you stay tough, you'll figuratively be eating dinner with them by the end, as a member of this daunting family event.
Puiu creates a claustrophobic atmosphere within an oppressive, environment, whether inside or outside the apartment. To some degree, the viewer becomes attached to Lary, who leads us through the movie and mostly stays above the bickering and the conflicting undercurrents. He is a stoic figure and creates a sense of being the only 'normal' person in the room for most of the time, the adjudicator, in this fresco of the harrowing micro- and macrocosms of present-day Romanian society. The backdrop of the memorial service is decisive, because it sets the expectations of a sombre tone, yet the ensuing moments are anything but sombre. In essence, this contrast between excessive formalism and improvisational realism is the defining conflict of Sieranevada. It is also the cause for so much strife and malcontent in Romania, as we fail to either commit or compromise, feeding the urban anxiety of big- city life.
Still, this is not a movie for any time of day or any state of mind. The conversational authenticity is fascinating, but it wears you down, just like when you're invited to a reunion with a bunch of strangers and sit silently in the corner. It makes you want to shout out, but you are too foreign to do so. The nearly 180 minutes it stretches over makes it hard to keep the momentum going at all times, with the last quarter suffering the most because of it. And with all the arising themes, you will need at least some understanding of Romanian clichés and history to get on board quickly.
Overall, however, I feel it is worth the time, because Sieranevada feels true. It's a bit of a nightmare, sure, but it also manages to find and weave its story with quality fabric, highlighting meaningful contrasts between society, family and the individual and their 'forced' cohabitation. And it is ostensibly a universal story about the inner workings of family life, a hardcore version of movies like Margot at the Wedding or August: Osage County. With any luck, you will also share in Lary's laughter at the end.
As a topic for contemplation, the decay and dissolution of the Romanian
landscape of movie theaters runs deep. Once a sort of burgeoning
socialist arrangement for communist propaganda, less than ten percent
of the theaters functional before the 1989 Revolution are still in use
today. In larger cities, they have been replaced by multiplexes, a
convenient mixture of commercialism and, often, more commercialism.
These are, at least, solid venues to go to and enjoy a movie every now
Cinema, mon amour is an ode to times gone by, relating to multiplexes like an art-house picture to a blockbuster. It tells the tale of Cinema Dacia and its manager, Victor Purice, a seemingly passionate and expansive individual. With limited support from the owners of past state-run cinemas, Romania Film, he, alongside the staff of two (maybe three) of the cinema, do their best to keep the movies running in Piatra Neamt. The documentary doesn't so much build a story arc, as it tries to be an exploration of need and improvisation. As such, we mostly follow Purice around in his day to day duties and musings, in somewhat too fervent of an admiration for the man to feel at ease. But the fact remains that Dacia is an exception rather than the rule, to some degree due to the personal efforts of Mr. Purice.
There are fascinating moments throughout Cinema, mon amour - usually details, more than overt exposition elements. For example, the staff of the cinema takes a lunch break at one point and you see them use movie posters as table cloth. Or as Mr. Purice is explaining one thing or another inside the projection room, the walls are filled not only with traditional posters (Speed seems to have been particularly popular), but also with playboy-esque centrefolds. Moreover, the level of improvisation required to keep the location running is equally fascinating and disturbing. It's a matter of folklore that Romanians are great at "making whip out of crap", but Cinema, mon amour really captures the essence of it as Mr. Purice creates a make-shift heating installation under the seating arrangement - a health and safety red flag if there ever was one. But it works, and alongside another heater, blankets and hot tea, the cinema keeps running through the harsh winters of Eastern Romania.
The documentary ultimately portrays a failing business, yet never takes the time to question this matter much. It stays romantic all the way through, not once really delving into why there is no niche in Romania for local cinemas (hell, for local culture in general). It's something worth discussing, because there is interest in movies and there's even interest in some less mainstream movies - this very projection took place at a festival showing such pictures and you'll find weekly movie screenings in cafes and pubs throughout the city (all free entry, though). Looking beyond these macro-issues, I would suggest that most local cinemas like Dacia fail not only because of their decrepit infrastructure, but because they are stuck in time. The movies they show often target similar audiences to the multiplexes and the staff, as portrayed here as well, have been working in the same places for decades. Most of these cinemas don't only feel cold, they are cold - and lifeless. Having frequently visited a local cinema in my hometown, run by the same company, the borderline untenable conditions are similar, yet I have never seen an authority figure outside the two joyless cashiers.
Mr. Purice, who seems to make some difference in Piatra Neamt, is a solitary figure. More so, while there are some endearing moments, the over-reliance on his charisma wore me out by the end of the documentary. And certain scenes feel off, like one in which he returns from a visit to a cinema in Germany, apparently ready to give up, accepting the futility of it all, only to argue himself out of it in the spirit of unity with his passive and subservient staff. Perhaps I'm being harsh, but I felt Mr. Purece to be rather condescending and overbearing, whichever his other merits might be.
My cynicism notwithstanding, Cinema, mon amour is a story I do care for very much. It does not flesh out its subject matter enough and bets the house on how its 'lead' will appeal to the viewer, yet it also has enough character to be authentic and relevant. The ideal meta experience, of course, is to watch the movie at Cinema Dacia - so there it is, a goal for life.
It feels like skewering Illegitimate would be too easy at times. The
gist of the movie, which is pretty clear if you've either read a
synopsis or seen the poster, is that two siblings (twins) indulge in an
intimate relationship with one another, which leads to a not quite
desired pregnancy. However, this only truly unfolds in the second half
of Illegitimate, as the first builds this dysfunctional family and
conjures up some context for the less than traditional romantic
The ample first scene, setting the stage, is a celebratory dinner. Romeo (Romi) has just finished his studies and the whole family is gathered: father Victor, twin sister Sasha, older siblings Gilda and Cosma, as well as the partners of the latter two, Bogdan and Julie. As the father presents an expose on how time dictates our understanding of life and everyone indulges in drink and the occasional retort, the tables are suddenly turned when Victor is asked whether, in his role as a doctor, he informed to the communist state police on women who wanted to get abortions - an illegal procedure before 1989. The answer is, in a nutshell, yes. Cue Ron Burgundy, as the situation escalates dramatically, Sasha and Romi become verbally aggressive towards Victor, he ends up fighting with Cosma, while Gilda tries meekly and helplessly to stop the madness.
It's this kind of chaos that Illegitimate draws its energy from and tries to shape into a complicated discourse about the patriarchy, generational conflict, personal v class morality, women's rights and abortion. While the effort can be appreciated, the movie is not disciplined enough to pull it off convincingly. You've got thin character development, characters whose only role is to advance the plot, a strange attempt at levity involving a hamster, your lead bearing the awful name of Romeo, some ill-timed dramatic close ups, which are all tied up with a neat little bow in a sub-par ending. Also, for a movie that deals about incest and abortion, in a country as secular as Romania, the matter barely comes up.
While this might all read rather damningly, there is enough coherence to go around and the artificial constructions are not overly intrusive; they probably just bugged me more than usual. Most of all, Alina Grigore's portrayal of Sasha is fascinatingly convincing at times, even if the script can leave her little to work with. She's passionate, restrained, compassionate, principled - but lost, a kind of contrast that comes across powerfully and draws you in. And the story conveys this tactfully, it allows the viewer to infer how overwhelming the recent loss of her (their) mother had been, how this is what has driven them so close together. The pace at which the movie unfolds also works in its favour, keeping it tight and eventful.
The movie's greatest fault lies in its tonal disharmony, as the more emotionally demanding scenes tend to descend into melodrama, clumsily punctuated by profanities. While this eases some of the potentially overbearing tension stemming from its heavy subject matter, it also undermines the otherwise caustic build-up. Paradoxically, Illegitimate still works in spite of its self-indulgence - it's an entertaining story of how a family implodes. It simply fails to punch as high as it aims to do.
I've never liked truth or dare, so as soon as one of the characters
suggested a truth/dare like game for a peaceful get together with
friends, I knew at a personal level that the worst would come about.
'Single room' movies, ever so dependent on a strong script, can easily
become overbearing, if wit does not overcome the wry mundaneness of
life and the timing of events is not both harmonious and believable.
When a theater play is the source material, you know at least that
there's a pedigree to the writing before you embark on the journey, so
this blind test was something different to, let's say, Carnage (an
engrossing adaptation itself). But different good.
A group of life-long friends gather at a dinner party, as the prologue already hints at cracks in the relationships between the couples coming together. The device meant to drive them towards unraveling is a 'game' wherein everyone lays their mobile phones on the table and all messages and calls are answered/viewed in public - funny enough, someone still has a Nokia! Well, the tension is palpable from the get-go and as two of the friends make a 'trade' in the hopes of mitigating fallout from an expected text, this actually proves to be the least of their problems.
As mentioned above, the first questions to answer pertain to timing and believability. The execution of the escalation scenario is convincing, in that it builds well towards a final release. However, your sense of disbelief is tested at certain points, as too much seems to be happening at once. It's inevitable and the film deals with it in a very clever way, but the premise remains questionable - that everyone gets up to so much mischief in an exciting way.
The set-up is used to deliver some relevant arguments about the nature of relationships, the meaning of trust and the way that technology works as a filter. All lives are presumed to be defined by some sort of multiplicity, of things that happen which we don't share with those around us because they are hard to explain, hurtful or simply duplicitous. In a way, it has never been so easy to deceive, while actually being just an unwanted glance away from one's reveal. The movie argues that what we ultimately see is the veneer of authenticity, so intricately holding together a web of lies, even among the thickest of friends. What it does even better is point to the fact that while there are some rules of thumb to explain the behaviour of other people, really understanding which rules apply to whom is a question of context and of prejudices.
What remains difficult to obscure is the artificiality of some of the situations - related to the need for entertaining drama. Worrying too much about surprising the audience with shock after shock is damaging not only in itself, but in tearing apart the integrity of the characters. Moreover, some meek symbolism, like the mystical eclipse of the full moon acting as a trigger for 'the unveiling', is equally unnecessary, if harmless.
Yet, it's fairly easy to transcend these inadequacies thanks to the sound build up of the atmosphere, the well rounded characters, and the depth the movie achieves in its existential commentary. Not sure I would label this a comedy, but it sure is a dinner date gone haywire, with some beautiful Italian flair to go with the ever so doubtful bio wine.
Films rarely put forward leading characters that they then choose to
vehemently punish throughout. But this is Mungiu, who has already
proved more than adept at creating authentic and ruthless portrayals of
society and in Bacalaureat he scrapes at the edges of our souls. His
tale of generational change is predicated on the dismantling of a
profoundly patriarchal state of being. To this purpose, he crafts a
story of remarkable complexity and depth, which cuts across so many
layers, that taking them apart would be counterproductive.
In short: Eliza is sexually assaulted one day before her 'bacalaureat', the final set of high-school exams students sit in Romania. She had been awarded a conditional scholarship at a university in the UK, but her impairment, both mental and physical, poses a threat to her getting the grades she needs. Cue in the father, Romeo, a local doctor, whose life is about to encounter quite the upheaval in his desire to ensure Eliza fulfills his own botched 'destiny' of leaving the country. Things take a turn for the complicated as he is more or less inadvertently offered an opportunity to guarantee the results his daughter needs. The circuit of corruption is as informal as it is intricate - a friend of a friend situation, one hand washes the other kind of thing. And beyond all this mess, Romeo also has to keep up the facade of his marriage, while dating a single mother, Sandra, who happens to be a teacher at Eliza's high-school.
What makes Bacalaureat instantly and distinctively good is the attention to detail, which breeds both familiarity and authenticity. But unlike Mungiu's previous major success, 4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days, the grimness does not stem from the subject matter, or the dry (non-)stylization of the story, but from how intertwined the many strands of this one case prove to be. Shadowing the father along it is painful because his shortcomings are obvious from afar. But it is his demise that is so important to ensure a new generation comes along which will set itself apart from the current one. He is tragic, because not only can he not escape his destiny, but he doesn't recognize his role in propagating that which he abhors. Romeo's willingness to compromise in order to ensure his daughter's chance of being the change he desires is part of the hereditary disease plaguing any such social construction.
Taking a wider view, it isn't coincidental that every moral-institutional junction is safeguarded by a man - a doctor, a police officer, a former mayoral figure, a school commissioner, a prosecutor. Contrasting this are the female characters, the strength of Eliza, the stoicism of Sandra, the wisdom of Romeo's wife, Magda. It's a battle of utilitarian and deontological ethics, posing the question of whether moral pragmatism can be moral at all. There is little doubt where Mungiu sides, as the male 'keywardens' are at least one of: cynical, unfeeling, self-serving, hypocritical. Masculine instincts are both highlighted ('it wasn't a rape, it was just a sexual assault!') and criticized. Even as it seems that a pair of male characters come along that are understanding and humane, there is a strong pinch of self-interest that dictates terms, which is why they are punished with a fine ironic touch by the director.
For all that happens, there are two scenes which summarize the journey we are on. Firstly, when 'someone' (life?) throws a stone at the apartment Romeo's family is living in, thereby breaking a window, he rushes out confidently, as if finding the culprit were a matter of when, rather than if. Then, towards the end of the film, as Romeo's life unravels by the virtue of his poor choices, he decides to venture after the assumed perpetrator of the assault on his daughter; now, however, he loses the trail instantly, finds himself wandering confused in the shadows of apartment buildings, jumping at every unexpected noise coming his way. The grip, the control over how society is run, ever loosening.
If anything, I would criticize Mungiu for being overly and overtly moralistic. There are several moments where characters are used as props to portray said moral perspectives, scenes which feel artificial and pedagogically pedantic. Also, the bureaucratic coldness conveyed by almost all officials (one moment dictating an official statement concerning Eliza's rape, the next discussing trivialities) feels uninspiring by now - there is a sense that themes are contained within a national frame, that our sole focus is alleviating the burdens of the past, more than the challenges of the present. And although this is hinted at during the film, the matter of exam fraud was as rooted as it is illustrated here about ten years ago, when I myself was finishing high-school. Hence, it feels against the times in a way, but then this can also be viewed as the last vestiges of an era, Romeo's solution being retrograde especially in such a light.
Bickering aside, creating such a complex and highly integrated story that feels true to itself almost all the way is quite splendid indeed. It's not an easy ride for viewers, who will suffer the pain of compromise, of systemic contortion against the individual - ultimately, Romeo has good intentions, the world just seems to require of him to do what he does, to right a wrong with a wrong. Yet, it remains the individual that decides, which is why the 'bacalaureat' is such an important stepping stone for change and for maturity. Mungiu's film is a comment on the precipice we are finding ourselves on now, where we see the change more clearly, are even enacting it, but it is the follow-up that will define us as a people, as a generation. Funnily enough, he proves to be an optimist.
After 'Bad Words', Bateman the director appears to be heading in the
right direction and takes on a more ambitious, layered project. This
film deals not only with a dysfunctional family, a concept that has
fascinated American cinema ever since American Beauty, but also with
the relation between art and life. Thematically, the family ensemble
has been portrayed more incisively in the recent past (The Squid and
the Whale, to name just one example with a similar character ratio),
but the manner in which relationships are blurred and redefined here
gives Fang a captivating spin.
We are presented with two seemingly wayward, middle-aged siblings who, it turns out, grew up in a tradition of 'intempestive art'. Alongside their eccentric parents, they enacted hoaxes of different scales in front of onlookers who were not in on the game - all with the aim of eliciting life out of the an otherwise mundane, controlled existence. As an accident reunites the family, which had drifted apart in the mean time, tensions persist, culminating when the parents disappear and the obvious question is asked: is this just another hoax?
The story works primarily because Kidman (Annie) and Bateman (Baxter), child A and child B, as their parents called them, convey an understanding that does not require explanations. It's the kind of sibling relationship that draws from so many shared experiences, joys and traumas that it defines a common frame of existence which time has difficulty in erasing. Similarly, we as an audience draw the faith required to suspend our disbelief from the energy the two control when on screen together. The questions pertaining to the philosophy of art, its authenticity and veracity, are interesting to ponder, but they only provide the backdrop to what Annie and Baxter have going on. The point of convergence between the two themes is that of control - its purpose in art, its purpose in relationship building.
This is fascinating, as control is so inherent to anything that happens in the early years within a family: the setting of constraints to the socially unrestrained spirit of childhood. It does not have to be coercive, but it is a matter of natural imprinting that occurs along the way, whether overtly or not. As adults, the struggle becomes to establish what we can (and should) control and what we need to let run freely. The mantra their father had instilled in Annie and Baxter emphasized the idea that by staying centered, one can let the surrounding chaos sweep over and past you. A lot of the time it's easier said than done. We also see that different people need different things in order to express themselves - a given, sure, but finely synthesized in Annie's qualms as an actor and Baxter's writer's block.
Where the story does fall a bit short is in the resolution. In a way, it's predictable and boring, but it's also inevitable. Inevitability is usually a good thing to have in an ending, especially in one dealing with the nature of art. Still, a stronger build up and a more resolute finale would have turned Family Fang into a really memorable piece of work. As it stands, it overemphasizes the idea that unrestrained (performance) art comes at a hidden cost both to those involved and to those affected by it. That it becomes hard to keep art and life contained. And, surely, that the price for this is too high.
Nonetheless, my newly found penchant for movies about siblings really let me enjoy this story. Perhaps just a bit more than I should have, but that's thanks to how authentic Annie and Baxter feel and the depth they lend to the experience.
As the movie was drawing to a close, the question of whether one could
really jump over an oncoming car was nagging me. Some brief research
highlighted an increase of the average car height throughout recent
decades to about 1.5 meters, but one could certainly go for an
aggressive sports car, which only measures about 1.2 meters. The world
record for high jump stands at 2.5 meters, but that's a running jump,
so can you do it standing still, as the movie suggests?
Putting my metaphorical glasses back on, I'll admit my interest was piqued when the realization came about that this movie is inspired by Werner Herzog's hike from Munich to Paris, in 1974, in support of his mentor, Lotte Eisner. Here, our lead Julian is a young man institutionalized for harboring said belief of car jumping, which ends up causing a tragic accident, wherein his best friend is killed. The story kicks off with Julian's escape from the facility he was being held in, as he aims to walk over 600 km to the house where his friend's father lives, recovering after a heart attack. The point of walking is to focus all his energy towards the father's betterment, in the spirit of a 'holy' pilgrimage. Along the way, Julian meets up with Ju and Ruth, both in need of a long walk to cleanse their unhappiness. All the while, Jan is on their heels, trying to find and return Julian to the asylum.
This constitutes the main theme of the movie, a paradoxical one at that: taking on a selfish/selfless journey, an escape from how the world sees you, how you see the world and how you see yourself. The great thing is that it works really well, as the characters come off stoic and (for the most part) relatable. Julian's quest for redemption, Ju's attempt to emote again and Ruth's struggle to feel self-worthy, alongside Jan, 'the jailer', who finds himself in a purgatory of his own making, make for a soulful exploration. The gorgeous backdrop of the German countryside turns what could have otherwise been an average experience into a tactful bout of escapism. Embellished with moments of both sensitive and caricaturistic humour, the story is packaged tightly until the last fifteen minutes.
This brings me to the two limitations impairing my enjoyment. Firstly, it is guilty of romanticizing away the complexity of the story, as it needlessly and unsubtly provides outlines for both characters and themes. Secondly, the ending is drawn out and too sweet for comfort, as the mystery is shattered and the stars realign.
The reason why I would rather not dwell on these things, is because the cinematic journey managed to inspire me. Upon its conclusion, I had become all silly and was thinking about biking for days or heading out to an isolated cabin in the middle of the mountains. Director Baker- Monteys proves to be a good paysagist of the soul, if not quite the storyteller. There, everyone can be a little pretentious!
It was fitting that on watching this film, I was almost alone in the
cinema, because isolation and solitude are powerful themes throughout
Fúsi. So when you're out by yourself, in the middle of the day, to
watch an obscure Icelandic movie showing at an archaic cinema that now
uses a projector rather suited for private use, than public screenings,
it all kind of falls into place and reinforces the emotional investment
in the whole experience.
Fúsi, a 43 year old man-child, but without the usual derogatory connotations of the term, is a tinkerer who lives with his mother, reenacts WW2 battles with his neighbour and works at a hapless job, where he is constantly bullied. Yet, what looks like a bleak and joyless existence, washes over Fúsi like a warm shower on a winter's day. His outlook on life is inhabited by a neutral positivity informed mostly through how naive and passive Fúsi seems most of the time. And all this is tested once he meets a woman who appears to take an interest in him, enabling him to be the nurturer he is at heart.
This story really hit a nerve, as I'm sure it has for many people who have ever felt alone, or love-stricken or stranded. It is a vicious portrayal of the world, which is only redeeming because Fúsi is the kind of character that takes it all in his stride. Otherwise, it gently treads the line of tragedy, but never crosses it. And surely, Fúsi is an idealized altruist with autistic tendencies, but he's still someone you can identify with, because you recognize the gestures, the emotions and the triggers within and around him.
However, the film does tend to be stereotypically simplistic in its bleakness. Whether it is the abuse Fúsi faces, his run in with the law, the relationship with his mother, these occasionally serve nothing more than to amplify traits in the character, respectively "the world", which are all too apparent to begin with. Not to mention that his romantic conception of what is acceptable really pushes the suspension of disbelief to places it should never be pushed. Yet, it is in the romance that the film manages to stay true to itself and believable, hyperbolic gestures aside. Because, hey, we've all been there and sometimes it does play out in your mind the way it all unfolds here. Or thereabouts.
So there it is, an Icelandic experience of philosophical proportions, that is quite certain to leave you ruminating at its conclusion. And empathizing, which is always a good muscle to engage.
It's sort of ironic that I happened to watch The Girl in the Book and
Diary of a Teenage Girl completely unpremeditated within the same week.
Both revolve around statutory rape and portray strong female
protagonists, but the stories they are a part of highlight different
levels of artistic accomplishment.
Unfortunately for The Girl in the Book, it does not take the time to achieve more. As we get to know Alice, both in her youth, when she is abused by a mentoring writer, and in her young adult life, when she is handed the job of overseeing the re-release of the same writer's magnum opus, it becomes apparent that her disheveled present is rooted in this particular past. Detached, self-destructive and incapable of forming lasting relationships, she struggles for meaning and purpose in the hope of ultimately rediscovering her love of writing, her joy for living.
This gloomy predicament is anchored in Emily VanCamp's strong performance, but at a mere 86 minutes runtime, it's not enough to convincingly build her character's transformation. The worst hit is her redeeming romance with young and idealistic Emmett, your very own Marty Stu character type, which goes from zero to "one hundred reasons you should forgive me" within twenty minutes. It's a shame that for all its melodrama, it avoids dramatic weight with a vengeance, in a story bow-tied ending you see coming from miles away.
Fortunately, the film is not so much about the narrative arc, as it is about its central character, so its faults are bearable. But it's a shame, because it does little with a variation on the Gone Girl scenario about the dividing line(s) between degrees of fictional characters. The escape it sets up is therefore neither original enough, nor thorough enough to elicit your utmost attention and care at all critical junctions.
There is no doubt to me that the film is very well informed on what
surrounded the real-life case of Cristian Panait and Alexandru Lele.
The former, a young prosecutor in Bucharest, was pressured to initiate
the criminal prosecution of the latter, a local prosecutor in Oradea.
Lele had ordered the arrest of the son of a local party bigwig, on
charges of being involved in a petrol smuggling ring. The political
ramifications of the case were immense at the time, in an era that can
arguably be identified as the worst for the rule of law in
post-communist Romania, especially in relation to the complexity of the
Tudor Giurgiu and Loredana Novak adapted this story into the semi-fictional "Why Me?". In doing so, they kept the core themes of corruption, political webs of interest and individual persecution, and molded them to fit a traditional narrative structure. What came out was the tragic story of Panait, here renamed Panduru, who is cornered into losing his mind while passing through cinematic stereotypes of political thrillers, rather than exploring the deeper roots of his anxieties. This leads to the crux of its undoing, creating a believable scenario where Panduru goes from self-confident to self-destructive within a time frame of a couple of weeks.
That is not to say that the movie is without merit. At times, it is a powerful indictment of powerlessness in the face of systemic corruption, as it effectively portrays the bullish hierarchical relationships that arise in certain bureaucracies. But as it focuses on Panduru, it has a hard time delivering an empathetic character - instead, we are served with Emilian Oprea's stiff and robotic interpretation, which occasionally engages, but never emotes. Moreover, Giurgiu employs several stereotypes and tropes you would expect from a Hollywood screenwriter/director, as lurid sex scenes of no obvious relevance and pointless mistresses spice up some unimaginative camera pans and shots, including the already classic downwards looking spiral staircase, which is complemented here with repeated battery removal procedures from some old school Nokia phones.
Perhaps I am being overly harsh, because it all comes together in a compact, competent, if rather undisciplined manner. But it is unusual to see Romanian films failing to be authentic in dialogue or setting, as what should be 2002 rarely feels farther away than 2015, while the bullishness doesn't have the expected bite. When it actually does work, like in the repeated use of the utterly condescending and demeaning expression of "boy", generally used by superiors in conversation with Panduru, you do feel the weight of the world on his shoulders, right there. It's just that the film lacks the fascinating depth that a proper analysis of the facts would have allowed.
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