10th Transilvania International Film Festival
At the opening of last year’s Transilvania International Film Festival (TIFF), Romania’s biggest film event, its head Tudor Giurgiu asked “Do we want to stay in the provinces, or do we want to go to the Champions’ League?”
He was perhaps inspired by the example of the CFR Cluj, the best-known football team from the city of Cluj-Napoca where TIFF is based and has most of its screenings, and which debuted in the real Champions’ League in 2008/9 – drawing with Chelsea and beating Roma in the latter stages of the tournament.
CFR reached the group stages again in 2009/10, but since then things haven’t gone so swimmingly – they finished the latest season in a lowly tenth place – two spots below their bitter cross-city rivals FC Universitatea (“U”) for short. The latter are building an impressive new arena-style stadium on the banks of the Little Someş river that meanders through this ancient town – a Roman settlement which as Klausenburg was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and is now established as the major metropolis in the western Romanian province of Transylvania, bordering Hungary.
And while one might expect Cluj to make the most of its Dracula connections, the city is mercifully devoid of tourist-snaring vampire kitsch. Indeed, the main nocturnal disturbance for this year’s international TIFF guests in the official festival hotel wasn’t fear of bats and other bloodsuckers but the more mundane matter of banging and clattering from the under-construction stadium just across the river – spectacular sparks from welding equipment could be seen well into the small hours.
It was rather fitting then, that the major new discovery of this year’s TIFF should have a footballing theme: Adalbert’s Dream, debut feature from writer-director Gabriel Achim, entirely takes place on the day after Steaua Bucharest’s shock defeat of Barcelona in the 1986 European Cup Final – still the finest hour for Romanian football on the international stage. A microcosm of the national euphoria is provided by a medium-sized factory in a medium-sized town, where the celebrations aren’t allowed to impede preparations for a more formal festivity: it’s the day of the Romanian Communist Party’s 75th anniversary, and various local dignitaries are expected.
Each year the factory’s health and safety department makes two short films that are screened during the afternoon – a documentary and a more “artistic” offering. This task is enthusiastically carried out by Iulica (Gabriel Spahiu), a happy-go-lucky chap in his early forties whose entrepreneurial activities – he even has that rare, prized emblem of domestic capitalist luxury, a video-recorder – occasionally get him in minor trouble with the authorities. But a VCR can come in handy, especially if one’s boss wants to view the occasional adult movie, or even replay highlights from a certain European Cup game. Various complications ensue in a film whose wry humour shows how ordinary Romanians got by in the dark late-80s when the regime of Nicolae Ceauşescu – as we now know – was drawing to its violent conclusion.
Romania has produced a steady stream of internationally recognised filmmakers since the first TIFF back in 2002 – and to the likes of Cristi Puiu, Cristian Mungiu, Corneliu Porumboiu and Radu Muntean we might now add the name of Gabriel Achim, who with Adalbert’s Dream - shot on a specially adapted VHS camera for that slightly fuzzy 1980s look – establishes himself as a highly promising new talent from this fertile corner of south-eastern Europe.
It’s regrettable that all the individuals named in the preceding paragraph are blokes – there have been notable distaff contributions to the so-called Romanian New Wave, particularly Ruxandra Zenide’s Ryna (2005); while Ioana Uricaru’s was the most effective segment of portmanteau presentation Tales from the Golden Age (2009). If Romania’s Nouvelle Vague is to avoid being as male-dominated as its 1960s French forerunner, however, then further encouragement must be given to the likes of Anca Miruna Lăzărescu – who emigrated to Germany at the age of 11 in 1990, but returned “home” last year to make the 30-minute short Silent River.
Like Adalbert’s Dream, Silent River is set in the Ceauşescu 1980s, but rather than focussing on those who muddle through the absurdities and oppressions as best they can, it examines people who decide that their future lies elsewhere – which in the case of the three characters in this film, means a hazardous expedition across the Danube. Tense and sombre, with a grimly ironic conclusion, Silent River examines a very specific juncture in history but by concentrating tightly on a small number of protagonists and locations, achieves a fable-like quality that is boosted rather than hindered by its gritty realism.
While TIFF exerts appeal as the best place to discover new Romanian stars like Achim and (Romanian-German) Lăzărescu, it has a wide programme of features introducing international movies to local audiences who would have little chance of encountering them otherwise. A case in point is Volcano, a feature debut from Icelandic writer/director Rúnar Rúnarsson, which had world-premiered in Cannes only a few weeks before TIFF began. The title, given Iceland’s recent spells in the international spotlight thanks to the eruption of Eyjafjallajökull last spring, could scarcely be more topical.
But the content is about as unsensational as can be imagined, detailing the belated emotional awakening of Hannes, a gruffly misanthropic schoolteacher in the traumatic months following his retirement. This kind of material is familiar enough from cinema and television in many countries, but Volcano - built around an excellent performance from Theodór Júlíusson – is a superior example of the ‘genre’, achieving some impressive modulations of tone and nuance within its deliberately narrow canvas.
With a colour-palette of pale greens, greys and shale blues, Rúnarsson and his cinematographer Sophia Olsson strike a sensitive balance between the rugged exterior landscapes of Hannes’ homeland and the equally forbidding terrain of his interior life – a craggy zone of regrets and discontents which undergoes a steady kind of geological transformation before our eyes. In the aftermath of the Icelandic financial disaster, many worried for the future of its film-industry – but others were more optimistic, reckoning that budgetary restrictions often yield positive creative consequences: and Volcano, which can’t have cost very much at all, is welcome evidence to bolster such a prognosis.
14th June, 2011
written for the 22nd June edition of Tribune magazine
Jigsaw Lounge‘s Cluj 2011 index page