Transylvania Mon Amour: Sheila Seacroft reports from Cluj, Romania (1/2)

Published on: June 21st, 2014

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In Cluj, a city which for 10 days every year eats breathes and dreams cinema, it’s hard to believe that Romanian cinema-going is in crisis. But it’s true; the country has the lowest population percentage in Europe going out to the pictures, and 78% of its towns have no cinema. The festival directors are doing their best to make some small change in this with an ambitious scheme, Save the Big Screen, aiming to turn the derelict national film depository on the outskirts of the city, where now heaps of unspooling film lie among the weeds and urban detritus, into a film museum and screening space, and over the next three years to open or reopen up to eight new cinemas across the country to show not multiplex fare but the home-produced and art-house films that at the moment are scarcely to be found outside festivals like this. And giving the cold shoulder to the multiplexes where it has occupied screens over the previous few years year TIFF had found two new spaces in the city centre, the theatre of the Military Centre and a university auditorium, making 12 screening places in all. Showcasing as usual the pick of the country’s films is one of the aims of the festival, both to industry, foreign guests and local students and citizens avid for them, as the sell-out of many of the Romanian Days sessions attest. So what are the Romanian offerings in this gorgeous city this year? Well, for starters, there’s a new Porumboiu.

About half way through his new film THE SECOND GAME (AL DOILEA JOC), Corneliu Porumboiu jokes to his father Adrian that the 25-year-old football game they’re watching on scratchy TV video recording is like one of his own films: ‘it’s long, and nothing happens’. And so they watch (unseen), along with us, this dour goalless derby played out in the almost constant blizzard that renders it near black and white, and we’re often inclined to agree. Porumboiu père, who refereed the match, is in general unimpressed. No one wants to look at an old game, any more than an old film. It’s done, it’s over. Corneliu is more romantic. A football nut, he appeared in full strip as cover boy of the 2009 TIFF programme, and he’s always looking for the skill, the meaningfulness, the heroic angle. Meanwhile Adrian reminisces without sentimentality about the way football was then, a year before the fall of Ceauşescu, the corruption, the absurdities, how two out of three referees were informers, how the camera never showed fights on the pitch, because ‘Communists always played fair’, but turned discreetly away onto the crowd instead, how the rules, of football as well as Romanian society, have changed.

The Second Game

That the two teams involved, Steaua and Dinamo Bucharest, were respectively the teams of the Army – Ceauşescu’s favourite team – and the Securitate – his son Valentin’s – must have made refereeing this the trickiest of tricky tasks, but Adrian views it all with equanimity. And so we go on watching alongside them from our cosy present, conversation lags, it’s often really boring, making our wandering minds try to focus on the action on the pitch – look, there’s a very young Dan Petrescu – or even on the bleak abstract beauty of the thing, and soon, somehow, you get drawn in almost against your better judgement into this irrelevant event of so long ago that is meaningless (yes, maybe Adrian’s right) to you. But gradually it starts to mean something, and like Corneliu you start to realise there’s an enormous heroism in there, to battle on in this awful situation, the referee always running his tight ship, the players never slackening, even the dogged soaked crowd in their thick uniforms or with skimpy coats and plastic bags on their heads admirable, somehow. Like the muddy fight in Pintilie’s masterpiece Re-enactment, also witnessed by a football crowd leaving a match, it’s both absurd and desperately serious. And, almost magically, you care, and the film becomes a moving testimony to survival.

Porumboiu is also responsible for the screenplay of THE UNSAVED (LA LIMITA DE JOS A CERULUI), a promising first feature by Igor Cobileanski from Moldova. It’s the familiar Porumboiu territory of urban desolation, and for shiftless 19-year-old Viorel (Igor Babiac) and his friend Goose the only thing making life bearable is their project to fly – in a homemade microlight aircraft, made up mostly of random appropriated parts. But their patched up dreams are never going to come to fruition. An accumulation of tedium, powerlessness, and jealousy, and the sense of a morality all round that is every bit as murky as their surroundings lead Viorel to betrayal. Cinematography by Oleg Mutu, responsible for so many of the ‘Romanian New Wave’ films, is bleakly engulfing, as every grim shade of grey-brown, ranging from the murk of early morning mist through the beige of pothole puddles to the darkly stained concrete of grimy apartment stairwells, alleviated but not invigorated by the occasional washed out pale blue, reflects the hopelessness which afflicts every character.

The bad old days of communism continue to be an itch that demands scratching for many Romanian filmmakers. This year two took us back to the pre-Ceauşescu days of the early 50s, and they could scarcely be less alike. CLOSER TO THE MOON (Nae Caranfil) is a glitzy romantic comedy/drama made in English, with a preposterous plot – band of dissident but well-heeled Jewish intellectuals pissed off with their lives under the postwar Communists stage a daring bank robbery in the guise of making a film, purely to discredit the government’s claim that theirs is a crimeless society. After their capture the government decides to use them to make a film of what they did – a sad and clumsy echo here of Re-enactment. Several leading English-speaking actors are involved, none doing themselves any favours, shoutily declaiming their lines as if on stage, but who can blame them as the scenario becomes increasingly unlikely, cliché tumbling over embarrassing cliché.

A total contrast, and making this shower look even more shoddy, was WHITE GATE (POARTA ALBA), by Nicolae Margineanu, a documentary-style black and white account of life in the notorious labour camp on the Danube-Black Sea canal. It follows the story of two young students caught trying to swim out of the country across the Danube, and recounts, in painful detail, the privations of the life there, the brutality offset a little by the camaraderie of the inmates – academics, students, writers, teachers, including the real-life inmate Arsenie Boca, a charismatic priest said to have performed miracles. Beautifully shot in glowing digital, with unforced poetic moments of beauty, it’s a hard watch and a grisly insight into an episode of Romanian history very much unknown to the West.

1984 is the setting for another black and white film, QUOD ERAT DEMONSTRANDUM (Andrei Gruzsniczki), an intense, intelligent drama set among academics during the 70s, when the Securitate controlled everyone and everything and being a party member was the only way to advance one’s work and career. Pressures on individuals amidst the drab surroundings lead to terrible betrayals, with strong performances from Ofelia Popii as a woman caught desperately between loyalty to family or friends and Florin Piersic Jr as a world-weary policeman.

But while so many Romanian films are urging us not to forget the past, it refreshing to find one that does almost advocate doing exactly that. In Valentin Hotea’s ROXANNE, Tavu is a late-thirty-something who has not quite yet settled into the new middle-class Romanian society as comfortably as his best friends from school, chirpy businessman Victor and wealthy doctor Sandu. Idly searching the now available Securitate archives he finds he was under surveillance during his teens for dedicating a song on Radio Free Europe to his then girlfriend Roxana (now Sandu’s wife), which led to her too being investigated. The can of worms this unearths brings a crisis which threatens to disrupt the course of not just his own life but that of those around him, even as the evanescence of memory is pointed up by his mother’s advancing Alzheimer’s. And for once here we see the past as something to move on away from into a new and different future.

red flag hag

It wouldn’t be TIFF without a new film from Luminiţa Gheorghiu, and in I’M AN OLD COMMUNIST HAG (SUNT O BABA COMUNISTA) she’s Emilia, working-class mother of an emigrée daughter returning on a visit across the Atlantic with her new fiancé. Suddenly aware of the shabbiness of her surroundings, and encouraged by the making of a film in her neighbourhood about the old times, Emilia recalls her days as factory foreman and party member. Interestingly, she’s that rare bird much ignored in Romanian film, the good person who was happy under communism, a life of secure housing, adequate food on the table, colleagues and job she enjoyed, though there are plenty of voices to tell her it was otherwise. Her daughter’s life in contrast, under capitalism, is falling apart. Unfortunately the film takes on too much both plot-wise and stylistically, worst of all with the use of faded black and white flashbacks, in which Emilia’s contemplative modern self sometimes appears, which just doesn’t work.

JAPANESE DOG (Tudor Cristian Jurgiu), also contemporary, is a quiet, tender film set in lush summery countryside where we meet the dour Costache (an excellent Victor Rebengiuc) coping with the death of his wife and loss of his old home in a flood. His son arrives on a visit with his Japanese wife and 7-year-old son whom Costache has never seen, and a process of reconcilation begins via the little boy. An Ozu-like sad serenity surrounds the old man, and it charms as one watches but doesn’t linger in the memory.

I saw only two Romanian documentaries this year, both highly enjoyable. THE TANASE AFFAIR (AFACEREA TANASE) looks at the strange business in 1982 concerning Virgil Tanase and Paul Goma, dissident Romanian writers living in France whose assassinations were ordered by the Ceauşescu government, setting in motion an almost unbelievable sequence of events and catalogue of dodgy characters in the secret services of the two countries that’s worthy of Le Carré at his most byzantine. Ionut Teianu has rifled TV and press archives to put together a fascinating documentary that is exemplary in its clear exposition of these deadly goings on. The fact that much still remains unclear, not least some of the motivations involved, adds spice.

And out in the open air of Piaţa Inirii, in the shelter of the massive Cathedral of St Michael and under the Transilvanian moon, I was lucky to see WHERE ARE YOU, BUCHAREST?, Vlad Petri’s lively street documentary made over the 6 months of occupation and anti-government demonstrations last year in one of the capital’s main squares. A range of folk of all ages and political colours from Greens and socialists to government supporters to nationalists, as well as casual passers-by, debate, sing, strike attitudes and march in mostly amicable fashion. However much democratic debate may seem dead, it really is alive and well at grass roots level. In true Romanian tragi-comic fashion, however, not enough voters go to the polls in the longed-for referendum, it’s declared invalid, and the status quo remains. The mostly local audience were vociferous in their enjoyment.

Sheila Seacroft
18th June 2014

part two