MUBI celebrated the achievements of Milos Forman, who died in April this year, by streaming two of his earliest films. The first, completed in 1963, comprises two short films put together ‘after the event’ since separately they would have less chance of being programmed. Kdyby ty muziky nebyly or If there were no music concerns an annual celebration (that started in 1961) in the town of Kolin honouring the memory of a famous 19th century composer František Kmoch who was born close to the town in Bohemia where he opened a music school. (Forman was himself from Bohemia.) Two local brass bands are scheduled to perform at the ceremony. The bands are mainly made up of older amateur musicians but also include some young men. The film’s main plot device is a motorcycle race that takes place on the local streets at the same time as the concert. One young man in each band daydreams about riding a motor bike and absents himself from the performance in order to watch the race. Both are dismissed by their bands but then sign up for the other band. IMDb categorises this film as a documentary but it isn’t. Although the majority of the band members are non-professionals, there are professionals from what would later be recognised as Forman’s ‘stock company’ in leading roles. Just 33 minutes long, the film was shot on 35mm equipment borrowed from the Barrandov Studio.
Konkurs (Audition) (47 minutes) was the first of the two films to be completed and was a more ‘personal’ project for Forman which was expanded from an initial idea for a 15 minute film shot on 16mm using Forman’s own camera (operated by the great Miroslav Ondricek). The link with the brass band film is the attempt to prepare musicians but this time it’s a talent show for girl singers (and their accompanists) auditioning at the Semafor Theatre in Prague. Again, as in the first film, the near-documentary coverage of the audition is provided with a fictional second narrative in which two young women are picked out from the group and given their own (separate) back stories. One of these two, Vera Kresadlova (just 18 at the time), later became Forman’s second wife. She’s shown singing successfully in a group with a rock ‘n roll band, but then finds it impossible to perform on her own for the audition. The other young woman lies to her boss at a beauty salon to get time off to sing with her guitar with accompaniment from a young man also on an acoustic guitar.
There are several online sources for detailed reviews/analyses of Auditions. One is by Darragh O’Donoghue on ‘Senses of Cinema’. Another is on Second Run’s site for its DVD release. There is no point in me repeating what is laid out on these sites. Instead I’ll make my own personal response. I like these two short films very much. Watching them makes me very nostalgic for a variety of reasons. I was a young teenager around this time and I recognised all these young people – and the older ones too. Some of the reviews are quite snotty about the music and the question of the ‘generation gap’. It is all very familiar from the UK in the 1960s, especially the pop music. When the Beatles first appeared in the UK at the end of 1962/early in 1963 we had much the same mix of musical styles – rock ‘n roll, the R & B bands, folk music, trad jazz and even the hangover of skiffle. The local bands were a long way from the polished, orchestrated soft pop we saw on TV. I recognised many of the tunes – though the Czech language songs had very different lyrics. Brass bands were a major part of the lives of workers and their families across much of industrial Northern England and the culture clash of the brass band v. TV features in A Kind of Loving (UK 1962). I can see why Forman wants to poke fun at the bandleader in If there were no music played by Jan Vostrcil but I think he still has some feeling for the traditions of the band. The audition montage in Konkurs is repeated in Forman’s first American film, Taking Off (US 1971), a film I really enjoyed on its circuit release in 1971.
It’s good to see films from the Czech New Wave – so influential on later British cinema – and it’s worth remembering the 50th anniversary of the ‘Prague Spring’ that ended with Russian tanks taking control of the city and leading to Forman’s decision to move permanently to America. I haven’t seen all his American films, partly I think because I was slightly disappointed by his embrace of American culture. He tended to see Taking Off as a failure, blaming himself for making a European art film in America. I saw it the other way round with him showing American filmmakers how to make more interesting films. A Blonde in Love (1965) was the other MUBI screening and a review will be posted soon.
Incarnation is the latest DVD release by Matchbox Films. It’s a first time effort by Filip Kovacevic, a 27 year-old maths graduate who also produced and co-wrote this low-budget film. The basic narrative concept he uses is the ‘time loop’, a familiar idea that can be applied to various generic narratives. The few reviews I’ve found of the film refer mainly to American films and to science fiction. That’s not surprising perhaps and many young filmmakers worldwide look to major Hollywood product for inspiration. I haven’t seen many of the American films reviewers reference (such as Looper quoted on the poster below) but Source Code is an interesting comparison, though the vast difference in budget and therefore lack of stars and effects pushes Incarnation in a different direction.
The basic premise is that a young man (played by Stojan Djordjevic) wakes up on a bench situated at a junction of five pedestrianised streets in the centre of what I assume is Belgrade. He doesn’t know who he is and he hasn’t made much progress in working out his situation before four men in black suits and white shirts wearing white face masks corner and shoot him. After a few seconds of blank screen, our hero wakes again on the same bench and the cycle is repeated. It takes a few more loops before our hero begins to make some progress, realising eventually, for instance, that there are five potential escape routes.
The film I was actually reminded of was Tom Tykwer’s Lola rennt (Run Lola, Run, Germany 1999). In that film, the cycle is only repeated three times and the ‘chase’ is about delivering a sum of money in time so Lola can save her fiancé. I was reminded perhaps by the running through the streets of Belgrade (instead of Berlin), but also by the sense that the film was like a videogame (much discussed in 1999) with the central character ‘learning’ each time and improving his/her chances of success. Much depends on the other characters on the street – and whether they are part of the same fictional world as the hero. In Incarnation, our hero does learn something from other characters, though never enough to fully understand what has happened – he’s going to have to work that out himself. The videogame references are strengthened by the clues the protagonist finds (which will perhaps take him to the ‘next level’) and by the pounding score for the chase sequences. I’ve no intention of spoiling the narrative pleasure in the film. All I’ll say is that the cycle is completed many times but that the film is relatively short for a feature. Some reviewers have not been satisfied by the ending but I thought it was quite appropriate.
It’s worth focusing on the film’s strengths. Belgrade looks an interesting city and it’s unusual to see a Serbian film in the UK outside a festival. With little money available, Kovacevic must have spent most of it on hunting for locations and then setting his cinematographer Uros Miltunovic loose to create some exciting chase sequences. There are a few scenes set away from the bench and the streets and these too work well. The choice of outfits for the mysterious hitmen also works very effectively. It’s a relief that though their look has been copied from various sources including the Matrix films, there are no special effects as such (apart from the fake blood for wounds!). The film has minimal dialogue and much of it is actually the young man voicing his own hopes and fears. In the UK trailer below the film appears to have been dubbed (the version I saw was subtitled) but I don’t think that’s much of a drawback in a film mainly focused on action.
You’ve seen it all before, so is it worth another go? I’d say yes, partly to enjoy the thrilling camerawork and also to see Belgrade. Stojan Djordjevic is an ‘everyman’ most audiences will be happy to follow. There is also the question of whether a Serbian take on this kind of familiar narrative offers something new. My thoughts certainly turned to that image of the Balkans as a very beautiful region (especially in the sunshine on the streets in a handsome city) which has experienced such terrible acts of violence as little as twenty years ago. Don’t worry, I haven’t given the ending away, but metaphor never seems far away in these kinds of narratives. Incarnation is certainly worth 80 minutes of your time and, who knows, perhaps an hour or two arguing about what it all means?
The DVD is released on 21st May.
This was my fourth selection from my MUBI free trial and I realised that I’ve been waiting to see it since my first encounter with Mészáros Márta’s films in Kolkata in 2009. Mészáros, born in 1931, is one of global film’s major directors of documentaries and fiction features but it is difficult to see her films in UK cinemas. (Second Run, the East European specialist DVD label in the UK, do have this Mészáros film on offer, but none of the director’s other films.) Diary For My Children is an important film for several reasons. According to John Cunningham in his Hungarian Cinema book (Wallflower 2004) it was the director’s most popular film in her home market. It was also very controversial with its release delayed by two years because of problems with the Hungarian censors (because it portrays the ‘Stalinisation’ of Hungary in the late 1940s?). Mészáros had always been more popular in the international market up to this point and the film did win the Jury Prize at Cannes in 1984. It was also an important personal statement for the director as a semi-autobiographical film and the first of a four-part series of films over the next 15 years.
The central character is Juli, a teenage young woman flying back to Budapest in 1947 from the Soviet Union. Like Mészáros herself, Juli was born in Hungary and then taken to the Soviet Union as a child. Her mother is dead and she doesn’t know what has happened to her father. She is accompanied by an older couple who were friends of her parents and in Budapest she will be fostered by Magda, someone else who knew her parents and who is now in a senior position in the Hungarian Communist Party.
I enjoyed the film very much. Juli is played by Zsuzsa Czinkóczi. She had been a child star and had appeared in three films for Mészáros and two for Márta’s former husband Jancsó Miklós. Czinkóczi was 15 when Diary was completed. In the narrative she ages from 15 to 21. It is an extraordinary performance and it is because of her performance that I sometimes felt that I was watching a 1960s New Wave film. Juli has that mixture of vitality and confidence mixed with moments of immaturity and vulnerability that I associate with the young women of 1960s films. She finds herself living in the midst of Party privilege in a large house taken from the bourgeoisie. She is enrolled in the top school in Budapest. But she doesn’t want either of these privileges. Instead she wants to find out what has happened to her father and her other relatives. Magda keeps her on a very tight rein and she has to ‘borrow’ Magda’s pass to indulge her only vice – bunking off school to go to the cinema. Meanwhile, around her, the Stalinists increase their control over Budapest. I felt at a disadvantage because of my limited knowledge of Hungarian politics in 1947-49. At one point, Magda is firm in condemning Tito, the communist leader of Yugoslavia who broke away from the USSR, leading to banishment from the Cominform – the association of socialist states. Magda preaches the Stalinist line promoted by Rákosi Mátyás, the Hungarian leader whose image is central to government events in Budapest alongside those of Lenin and Stalin.
As the film’s title suggests, it is like a personal diary. Juli’s ideas, her fears and her desires are central and we see the political environment in the background. It isn’t until she begins digging that she uncovers clues to what happened to her parents. She has her own intimate memories which Mészáros inserts into the narrative without any warnings or clues. These are scenes that Juli is remembering or daydreaming about when she sees her father in a quarry selecting stone and working on a sculpture or when she accompanies her pregnant mother to the hospital. These are personal memories for Mészáros and she emphasises this by casting the Polish actor Jan Nowicki as both Juli’s father during the dream/memory sequences and János, her father’s friend who escaped to France in the 1930s but returned to Hungary after 1945. Mészáros later married Nowicki. Diary was photographed by Jancsó Miklós Jr., her son from her second marriage to the director Jancsó Miklós, perhaps the best-known Hungarian filmmaker of the period.
Little sense of Hungary as a defeated Axis supporter came across to me, but perhaps that is the point – everyone has to survive in the new system and the past is quickly forgotten if bringing it up would mean criticising the Russians. János does talk about the war and the (British?) air raids which killed his wife and disabled his son. He will become the character through whom Juli learns about the past. Juli’s ‘adopted’ grandparents are an odd couple. The man does provide Juli with some clues about the past, but the woman is a very sketchily-presented figure.
Juli’s story is in one sense a ‘coming of age’ story, though some of the most common elements of that genre are not followed up and the story is complicated by the political struggle. Juli changes when the evidence of how the system really works is brought home to her. At other times she does the kinds of things teenagers do. She has a boyfriend who she met at school, but she tells him from the start that she doesn’t love him. What she wants at this time is a friend of her own age. Mészáros Márta is an immensely important female filmmaker but there have been debates about the extent to which Diary for My Children is a feminist film. In one sense, simply making the film in the patriarchal Hungarian system, which still seems to have prevailed in the 1980s, is a feminist statement. In the next film in the series, Diary For My Lovers (1987) Juli travels to Russia to go to the Moscow Film School because the film schools in Hungary don’t admit women. This is again an autobiographical statement. Here is an extract from an essay by Catherine Portuges on the Second Run website (the full essay comes with the DVD):
. . . the film is neither purely fictional nor entirely autobiographical, nor, for that matter, strictly speaking a product of what has been called ‘women’s cinema’. Rather, by maintaining an intricate balance between personal exploration on the one hand and historical investigation on the other, Mészáros’ cinematic method transforms and expands its autobiographical dimension by alternating sequences in which the historical context, marked by the use of archival footage, is dominant. This structure positions the viewer in a way that avoids both the more complete distancing of documentary and the more individually-motivated conventions of autobiographical cinema. . . . Diary for My Children transcends traditional categories of genre, yet it functions as a kind of history . . . in which different angles of vision operate to analyse micro-history in order to generate ideas about a larger, macro-historical vision – a private message, in other words, which, in the public mind, becomes a collective one. (Catherine Portuges is the author of Screen Memories: The Hungarian Cinema of Marta Meszaros (Women Artists in Film), John Wiley and Sons, 1993
This is quite a persuasive argument, though for me the archival footage wasn’t so noticeable until towards the end of the film, by which time Juli is ‘aware’. In fact, I identified with Juli so strongly that the division didn’t really bother me. Juli stretches Magda’s patience and won’t listen to the older woman’s justifications – or at least her behaviour means Magda thinks that she just won’t listen. (It is this refusal to engage with Magda’s perspective which is perhaps the disadvantage of the ‘diary’ narrative. I was strongly reminded of a similar narrative in Pawel Pawlikowski’s Ida (Poland-Denmark 2013). Ida is set in the 1960s and an 18 year-old young woman leaves a convent to meet her aunt who has been a judge in communist Poland. Juli could easily be in that 1960s-set film. I’d like to see what happens to her in the other three films, but availability looks a real problem. Perhaps MUBI can find them as well?
As if to prove that Glasgow’s programme offered real diversity, the last film I saw was also the most difficult to read (but also at times quite beautiful in its construction). This is the latest film from Sergey Loznitsa who has now become a Cannes regular. I’m guessing that Loznitsa’s best-known film is Maidan (2014), a documentary about the civil protests in Ukraine in 2013/2014. I was intrigued by that title as I’ve always associated ‘maidan‘ with India as a public space but it turns out to be a Persian word. Loznitsa turns out to be a prolific filmmaker and I’m glad I got the opportunity to see one of his films for the first time. I wasn’t sure what to expect.
Sergey Loznitsa is a Ukranian but has recently lived in Russia and now Germany, which might help to explain the wide range of funders for his latest film. A Gentle Creature is an adaptation – a ‘creative’ one – of a short story by Dosteyevsky. The story dates from 1876 and has had several film adaptations, the most notable perhaps by Robert Bresson as Une femme douce in 1969 and Nazar by Mani Kaul in 1991. There have also been other versions in Russia, Poland, Vietnam, the US and Sri Lanka. Having read an outline of the Dostoyevsky story, I’m at a loss to relate it directly to the new film but it may be that it is a thematic adaptation rather than a ‘faithful’ one.
The film begins with a long shot of a country road. A young woman alights and sets off across the fields. The photography is by Oleg Mutu, The Romanian master whose work I saw most recently in the Polish film United States of Love (2016). The young woman is ‘the gentle creature’ of the title who, like many of the characters in the film, is not given a personal name, and is played by Vasilina Makovtseva. Next we see the woman visiting the post office to retrieve a parcel (actually a box of food, clothes and cigarettes etc.) that has been returned to her by the prison where her husband is incarcerated. Why has this parcel been returned? Her only option is to visit the prison, many miles away, in person and try to deliver it. At this point we begin to realise that we are again in a Kafkaesque narrative where every move to resolve an issue will result in a block or a refusal to act. Our hero is constantly thwarted and thrown into danger as various unreliable characters offer her assistance. The cinematography and some of the elements of the mise en scène suggest that the setting for the journey to the prison could be Soviet Russia before 1990, but other clues confirm it is 2012. It doesn’t seem to matter and as several reviewers have pointed out, the Russian penal system (like the American one?) has been a source of despair from the time of the Tsars until the present. There are suggestions that the prison in the film might be in Siberia and the woman travels by train. The long distances which relatives must travel just adds to the despair.
On the train and at the prison itself, the woman is surrounded by a variety of Russian character types with much drinking and singing of songs. Stoically she walks to and fro carrying her box. We fear that her naïvety will lead her into some kind of forced sex work but somehow she evades her fate. Finally, she falls asleep and in her dreams experiences a kind of show trial and then wakes from a nightmare – only for it to appear as if the real nightmare is about to begin . . . A Gentle Creature is a long film (143 minutes) but for the most part I was fully engaged trying to work out what was happening and what it might mean. It was only the last sequence of the dream that seemed to drag, not because of the dream/fantasy itself but that similar ‘testimonies’ are made by virtually every character the hero has met on her journey. It felt as if we had to hear each one for the narrative to be ‘complete’. I thought I’d got the point after the first two or three but I suspect I wasn’t getting the point at all.
So much talent and effort has gone into the film, supported by so many different organisations from different European countries that I want to support the film myself even if I don’t understand it that well. The performances are all very good, especially the lead. The cinematography and design features are also very good and if the whole mammoth enterprise was achieved with a budget of €2million (IMDb) both the producer Marianne Slot and director Loznitsa are miracle workers. According to the festival programme, the film has been taken up by Arrow Films in the UK, though whether it will get a cinema release remains to be seen. I hope it does find its audience because anyone with better knowledge than me about Russian history and culture will find plenty to get their teeth into.
This is the second of a loose trilogy of Bulgarian films about social issues in one of the newer member countries of the EU by the team of Kristina Grozeva and Petar Valchanov. I reviewed the couple’s earlier film The Lesson (2014) here. The second film follows the first in looking for ideas in local newspaper stories which are then used as a stimulus for developing more complex dramas. The first film seemed to me a social realist drama which used some familiar genre tropes at certain moments. I thought this second film was slightly different in bringing together two central characters whose stories mesh in interesting ways and which was mostly coherent in engaging with genre ideas. I’d need to go back to the first film to check, but it might be that the camerawork by Krum Rodriguez is this time ‘looser’ with hand-held shallow focus in the modern style rather than the ‘documentary observation’ of The Lesson. Some of the same crew and the two principal actors reappear from the first film.
The punning title needs translating to reveal its significance. It refers to both the recognition of a ‘hero’ in the tradition of the worker-heroes of the era under communism and to the object which is used to represent that recognition – a traditional Russian wristwatch with the brand-name ‘Slava’ or ‘Glory’. The worker in this case is Tzanko Petrov, a ‘linesman’ on the railway who checks the track and in particular the rails and their attachment to the sleepers. One day he discovers a pile of banknotes lying on the track. He quickly decides to alert the police. This action is brought to the attention of the ministry of transport and in particular the energetic and relentless Julia Staykova, the head of public relations. She immediately begins a media campaign which will see Tzanko summoned to Sofia where the minister will present him with a new watch. But Tzanko is not ideal PR material. He is a loner with a speech impediment. Julia herself is also distracted by her own personal issues and in particular her current infertility treatment. Added to this is the context of corruption in the operation of the railways – the reason why celebrating Tzanko’s public-spirited action is so important for good PR.
Out of this promising mixture of narrative threads Grozeva and Valchanov have created a black comedy which works on many levels, shifting from moments of near farce (more trousers being dropped for non-sexual reasons than I’ve seen for a long time) to sometimes quite sad and sometimes quite brutal episodes. There is an open ending, but one with little hope that all will end well.
Julia Staykova is played by Margita Gosheva, the teacher from The Lesson and again she gives an excellent performance as the driven Julia. Stefan Denolyubov, the moneylender in The Lesson unrecognisable behind long hair and a wild beard, plays Tzanko. His is an equally good performance in a role which, like Gosheva’s, requires a wide range of skills. In the Press Book on the New Wave Film website, the directors suggest that they first thought of the PR boss as a man. I was surprised because in the UK I tend to assume PR people are very often women. I think they made the right decision in the end.
The EU does play a role in the narrative, if only because the corruption on the railways might cause problems for future EU support which is being discussed in the background as the events unfold. Otherwise the main social issue in the film is perhaps the extent to which traditional (or perhaps ‘pre-1990’) Bulgarian society is coping with global modernity, whether it is mobile phones being answered in the fertility clinic in the midst of consultations with a doctor or the frantic attempts of a TV crew to present the best image of the railways in an online news report. Tzanko is a little behind these changes as a rural worker, though possibly only because he still has a human touch. Crucially it is the loss of his Russian watch with the engraving on the back representing his father’s love that he really cares about.
There were just a couple of puzzling moments in the film. At one point a prostitute appears and I wasn’t sure why. And the infertility treatment baffled me as I wasn’t quite sure what was going on. Otherwise I was engaged throughout. I watched the film in a new cinema, part of a multi-purpose arts centre. The disadvantage I discovered was that the removable seating (to convert the venue for theatre and music events) creaked and groaned as people came in late and I lost concentration during the opening scenes. I’m increasingly concerned by the new kinds of auditoria that are being opened – I haven’t yet ventured into an Everyman or an Odeon de Luxe with squidgy sofas and tables. Oh, how I pine for the artplex in Nimes with a comfortable seat, complete darkness and no distractions! Still I was grateful to see Glory in one of the handful of venues to risk a subtitled film in the ‘Awards’ season. Don’t miss it if it comes your way – this director couple have real talent.
After the all too common long wait, the UK finally got this 2016 Cannes prizewinner (shared Best Director for Cristian Mungiu) at the end of March 2017. It was worth the wait. I have only a fleeting acquaintance with Mungiu and the rest of the ‘Romanian New Wave’ of the last ten years or so, but I recognised the basic elements of this type of film – a single setting and a group of interlinked characters involved in relatively routine actions. The skill comes in scripting the scenes in such a way to build a strong central narrative ‘line’ while layering the narrative with several different forms of commentary.
The first thing I noted was that this is a co-production with France and Belgium – ‘Why Not Productions’ and the Dardenne Brothers’ company ‘Les Films du Fleuve’. Both companies work with Ken Loach and other leading filmmakers such as Jacques Audiard. Romanian films need this kind of outlet. Although Graduation was the third best performing Romanian film at Romanian box office, it was still only able to take €145,000. Romanians are not very interested in their own cinema. Directors like Mingiu must sell their films in the international market and therefore the films must have universal elements in their stories – or their local stories must appeal to international viewers.
The ‘inciting incident’ in the narrative for Graduation is an attack on a young woman one morning on her way to school. Eliza (Maria-Victoria Dragus) has a lift to school from her father but stops in a small building site expecting to meet her boyfriend (who is late). Slightly injured and shaken up by the attack (which we don’t see), she is hindered in her preparations for her final exams at school where she is an ‘A’ student – but otherwise this could be a disturbing and unfortunate incident but nothing more. But Eliza’s father Romeo (Adrian Titieni) is a surgeon at the local hospital and he seems even more upset than Eliza. He has invested a great deal in Eliza’s education and now she must get high grades to win a scholarship at a ‘prestigious university’ in London. He isn’t prepared to see her fail.
Romeo believes himself to be a man of principle and honour and he despises what he sees as the disease of corruption in Romanian society. But he is also aware how things work in Romania and he can’t stop himself trying to do his utmost for his daughter. He starts by trying to get her more time to finish her exams (she now has a bandaged wrist) but soon finds that he could exert more pressure to ensure she gets the grades she needs. The narrative is set in Romania’s second city, Cluj in the Carpathian mountains, but we don’t see much of this large city, just a few streets and public buildings and on one occasion the grassy top of the ski jump in summer where the police are conducting a search for Eliza’s attacker. Romeo is there because the police officer in charge is one of his old school friends and a source of advice on how to play the system. Reading reviews, I can see that this focus on corruption is read by most critics in relation to the inability of a generation of Romanians to free themselves from the culture of survival under the Ceaușescu regime in the 1970s and 1980s. I can certainly see this, but I don’t think viewers in other societies should be quite so judgemental – similar systems operate in many parts of the world. Which school you went to and who you know is not at all unhelpful in getting access to many things in the UK.
Mungiu develops the narrative slowly. It’s almost like a web made up of the surgeon’s interactions with a diverse group of people. Romeo is gradually trapped in the web and his secrets are exposed. Questions are posed about several characters, many of whom are inter-related in different ways. About halfway through the film I thought to myself, “This is enjoyable and well done, but I’ve seen the like before”. Then Mungiu started to up his game and bring in more elements. For a UK viewer the London connection is ironic – Romeo declares that Eliza will be so much better off in London (where women aren’t attacked in the street!) and where there is no corruption (another misconception?). We also might wonder whether a bright young woman like Eliza shouldn’t stay and help to build the new Romania. But mostly, I think, we are concerned about what is happening to Romeo (and to his depressed wife, Magda (Lia Bugnar) and his elderly mother – there is a family melodrama of sorts in the mix). Some of the questions posed by the narrative are answered, some are left open. It’s quite a long film (128 minutes) but it is always engaging and in many parts gripping. This is what I consider to be ‘quality cinema’ – entertaining and thought-provoking. The script by Mungiu and his direction of excellent performances by his cast are tight and efficient. I hope he finds his audiences. As of the first week of April, Graduation had made approx. €1.6 million in Europe as a whole.
The Leeds International Film Festival Catalogue has this film described as
“a tense, atmospheric Romanian western . . . “
I rather wondered about this but several friends recommended it. The film does bear comparison with quite a few westerns though it is set in the early C19th. It is set in Wallachia, which is close to Bucharest and includes rolling plains, but also woodlands, rivers and some hills.
Across this territory ride Costandin (Teodor Corban), a constable, and his son Ionita (Mihai Comanoiu). They are chasing a runaway gypsy Carfin (Toma Cuzin) on behalf of a local Boyar (noble and landowner). Carfin, like many of the servants in this time and area, is equivalent to a serf, at the mercy of the lord. In fact, as the plot progresses, it becomes clear that Carfin’s sins are greater (or lesser) than this.
The gypsies, as it still the case in parts of Europe, are on the end of racist exploitation and oppression. Costandin represents this hierarchical and privileged system. And his conduct is ensured by the system whereby he is paid by results rather than by wages. This is no independent police force, and a judicial system seems entirely absent. The power of the Boyar is apparent in the submissive response that Costandin receives on almost every occasion.
As Costandin and Ionita ride the father talks incessantly: much of the time imparting his experience to his son. Other character also talk volubly. They meet an Orthodox priest whose long rant exhibits prejudices about almost every conceivable class and ethnic group except the ones to which he belongs. Also along the way the pair meet an encampment of gypsies, poor rural peasants and craftsmen: and late in the film a fair where among the items for sale are adult and children sold as slaves.
The film offers a caustic portrait of this reactionary and oppressive society. But it does so with great skill both in the performances and in the production values. The film was shot in black and white anamorphic Eastman 35mm film stock. It has a tendency to site people in landscapes in long shot, visually pleasing and reminiscent of some classic westerns. It runs for 108 minutes and has English subtitles. However, it has also been copied onto a DCP (very likely only 2K) and I am sure that 35mm would have given greater definition, especially in the depth of field. It has an 18 certificate in the UK, due to very strong language, some violence but presumably also for a sequence where Costandin arranges part of Ionita’s education.
The Romanian ‘New Wave’ which started to have a major impact on the festival circuit in 2004 has been one of the strengths of the Leeds Film Festival for several years and this was evident in the healthy audience for an afternoon screening in this year’s festival. Unfortunately it’s one of the recent film movements that I haven’t really caught up with (the unwatched DVDs are on my shelves waiting for my attention – lack of time rather than interest). As a result perhaps, I was not alert enough to spot the crucial significance of a scene early in the film and the result was that I felt slightly cheated and frustrated at the end. The fault is mine, not the film’s.
Radu Muntean is a central figure in the New Wave and this, his fifth feature, was shown at Cannes this year in the Un certain regard strand. The central character is Patrascu (Teodor Corban, an actor associated with New Wave films). Muntean presents to us the daily incidents of Patrascu’s life – taking his dog Jerry for exercise in the park, squabbling with his young teenage son who is obsessed with videogames and Facebook and then doing his job. Patrascu and his wife run a small business which provides a service to iron out the tedium and bureaucracy involved in registering motor vehicles in Romania. It took me a while to work this out since the first job appeared to involve a film production company. The important narrative incident occurs when Parascu hears shouts and bangs in the apartment below in his block. He stops to listen but then decides it’s not his business. Later it transpires that a young woman has died in the apartment. Questioned by the police, Patrascu says nothing. We presume that in Romania the legacy of Ceaușescu’s brutal repression is such that 25 years later middle-aged people like Patrescu are still careful about what they say. The bureaucracy that provides Patrescu with a living must be part of this legacy as well – as is the network of contacts that he methodically maintains. He can queue-jump on behalf of his clients mainly because of these contacts. At other times though Patrescu shows himself to be an ‘ethical man’, e.g. in his support of the girl who has died when others start to repeat gossip about her.
The narrative moves into its final phase when a young neighbour asks Patrascu to re-register his vehicle and then wheedles his way into Patrascu’s household, befriending his wife and son – offering them advice on a new computer etc. You can probably work out what eventually happens – it was because I didn’t recognise who this neighbour was that I literally ‘lost the plot’ at this point. When I realised what was happening I felt rather stupid. It occurs to me that this film has some similarities to Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Once Upon a Time in Anatolia and that film’s mix of a police procedural and a drama about relationships in families and communities. One Floor Below doesn’t approach the epic scope and narrative complexity of Ceylan’s work, but its focus on ‘smaller’ stories is just as valid and I should have got more from this than I did. Reading other comments on the film, however, I see that I was not alone in missing aspects of the narrative and that’s going to be a risk in making films like this.