CLUJ 2007 : Sheila Seacroft is Back in Town!

reviewed below:
So Long, My Heart (Wir werden uns wiederseh'n) 7/10
Night of the Sunflowers (La noche de los girasoles) 7/10
Euphoria (Eyforiya) 8/10
Beyond the Forest (Einst Susse Heimat) 8/10                        
Forever Never Anywhere (Immer nie am meer) 6/10
Hostage (Omiros) 5/10
Fresh Air (Friss Levego) 7/10
Severance    6/10                                                                     
In the Company of Men [1997]   9/10
Reprise   7/10
When the Road Bends : Tales of a Gipsy Caravan   8/10
An Angel Hooked On Me (Ingerul necesar) 4/10                                               
4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days – Tales from the Golden Age
    (4 luni, 3 saptimani si 2 zile – Amintiri din Epoca de Aur) 9/10
Cover Boy : The Last Revolution
    (Cover-Boy… L'ultima revoluzione) 6/10
Bad Blood (Coisa Ruim) 6/10                                                   
The Beheaded Rooster (Cocosul decapitat) 6/10
The Trap (Klopka) 8/10

Tuesday, June 5th
Midnight arrival in Cluj for the 6th Transilvanian Film Festival, via a surprisingly sultry Manchester Airport, sticky Budapest with a fine vemilion Magyar sunset, and then finally the  velvety warm Transilvanian moonless dark. The Carpatair plane that brought me was propeller driven 50-seater, and walking across the airfield I felt I only needed mist, a tilted hat and a Bogart to relinquish, for true apotheosis.

But, a nos moutons…

So Long, My Heart (Wir werden uns wiederseh'n) 7/10
Directed by Oliver Paulus, Stefan Hillebrand
Switzerland 2006 90 mins
   There's a new member of staff at the old people's care home, and it's a man! Tom Jahn is the middle-aged, unexceptional bloke who charms the female hearts of staff and residents alike. He has a natural gift for making people happy, but his own problems soon surface. Meanwhile Frau Kramer is 'seeing' ghostly musicians at night who play the old lovesongs of her youth, one of which provides the film title.And soon we are too.
   This unlikely setting provides a sad and funny film about commitment, happiness, and what keeps people going, moments of fantasy presenting the sudden elusive moments of happiness which can occasionally flash out from the most mundane circumstances and environments. It's a film about the ordinary, the unglamorous, the unsatisfied. Nice underplaying from everyone, especially Pola Kinski as the cook searching for love, and the brilliant set of elderly (non-professional) actors. Sentimentality never takes over. And yet one still leaves a little unsatisfied.
Seen at Republica Cinema 5 June

Phew it's hot! The fragrance of the market is overpowering: peaches, herbs, one tiny stall has only sprays of elderflowers, bringing memories of English hedgerows.  The heaped strawberries are turning to pulp in their heaps, and people are buyng great plastic bagsful, presumably for jam making. For once it seems a good idea to leave the sun behind for a darkened cinema.

Night of the Sunflowers (La noche de los giraosoles) 7/10
Directed by Jorge Sanchez-Cabezudo
Spain 2006 123 mins 
   Clever in concept and execution, finely acted, with moral twists and turns worthy of Hitchcock, this film is based on the Rashomon structure of showing a narrative through the perspectives of key protagonists. Only this time there are six strands, and each both overlays, elucidates and deepens the previous one, as well as taking us further into the plot. Beginning with a TV report of a murder and rape in a sunflower field, the film homes in on a seemingly idyllic small country town which is rapidly becoming depopulated, and a nearby hamlet occupied only by two cantankerous old peasants who spend all their days arguing and trying to get the better of each other. Into this setting come two sets of city dwellers, a travelling salesman of vacuum cleaners(Manuel Moron in delightfully creepy form), and a group of middle class potholers who are to investigate a newly discovered cave.
   Meanwhile we meet the town's agents of law and order, ominously signalled as caretakers of such by a rather obvious 'you're in charge now while the chief goes on holiday' business early on. If ever there was a key indicator that a big crime's coming up, it's that. They are solemn old timer Amadeo (Celso Bugallo) and his shifty son-in-law Tomas (Vincente Romero) who is already two-timing his new wife.
   The unravelling of the plot brings many surprises and tensions, and while Tomas lives up to our worst expectations, the greater moral shocks concern the other characters, with whose urban-based, modern outlook most of the audience will have associated.  Everyone is diminished. Meanwhile there are many glimpses of TV News's often disregarded retelling of the rape story, a sad, desperate wave for recognition of a justice not done.
   So, why did it not entirely fulfil its promise? Stock characters, flagging pace,  too long spent setting up characterdand situations (something Hitchcock never was guilty of)… difficult to say.  But a general weariness seemed to come over the audience, myself included, at about the 90 minute mark, and though it ended strongly, a little whittling away of the 2 hours might have produced a more telling and satisfying result.
Seen at Republica Cinema, 5 June

Euphoria (Eyforiya) 8/10
Directed by Ivan Vyrypayev
Russia, 2006 74 minutes
   This terrific first feature seems to take its power and life from the breathtaking landscapes in which it is set, through and over which its camera moves as lovingly and recklessly as its characters. High grasslands, dusty white cliffs and pathways, bleak rotting farmsteads and a broad rippling river (the Volga?) are as much characters as the individuals whose tragic yet invigorating lives it portrays. Hardy's Egdon Heath comes to mind.
   From the first moments of the film, of a crazy motorbike ride without brakes, the theme of the combination of loss of control, fear and delight takes hold. Vera and Pakha met a short while ago at a wedding, and, and though she is married to an older man and has a small child, you know that the compulsive attraction they have will overtake them. The camera is like a protagonist itself, sometimes soaring over the land seeking them, feeling almost out of control, ( I love the way it will overshoot what it is looking for,as if it can't get the brakes on fast enough, and refocus from another angle) or holding a still shot for our contemplation, or refusing to let us see things we really don't want to see but must. The final tragedy is strengthened by the enormous joy in life and experience we have felt. Euphoria indeed.
Seen at Republica Cinema, June 5

Beyond the Forest (Einst Susse Heimat) 8/10
Directed by Gerard Igor Hauzenberger
Austria  2007 75 minutes
   It's fairly unknown outside Eastern Europe that north west Romania once had a sizeable ethnic Saxon population, most of whom moved 'back' to Germany or Austria after 1990. Now less than 10,000 are left, with an average age of 69. Hauzenberger's finely textured documentary, conceived and made over several years, non-fancy, touching but rigorous, good-looking, full of stillnesses and reflection,  unbothered by political correctness, has no narrator, respecting our abilities to form our own responses.
   Set in sleepy villages with mud mainstreets,crumbling but magnificent churches and a very Germanic brass band whose music and songs, to English ears very like Salvation Army hymns, punctuate the film, it centres on two very different individuals and their immediate circles, harsh isolated lives where pleasure is reading poetry about the homeland, making do and mending, looking at pictures and remembering. 
Josef, with his strong feelings about the inferiority of Romanians and gypsies, his library of mouldering, fascist books, his holocaust denial, his youth spent in the Waffen SS, his harsh (though green) views on life and death, his use of women, could so easily have been a figure of hate and ridicule. Yet it is the film's strength that he is a strangely sympathetic figure, lonely in his ramshackle yet curiously organised house, clever, aware of his own folly, trapped, as the director so astutely termed, by the cage he has built for himself. 
   More easily liked is the second subject, Marie, who lost her youth to the deprivations of war and then the 5 years in Soviet labour camp which followed, while the young men of her age went off to war and most never returned, wnsuring a genration of unmarried women and a dearth of children.  Still tilling her own land, still making her super-strength currant wine and cider, reluctantly accepting the help of her neighbour, she is funny, insightful, and apparently well engaged with life, but claims she longs for death. (She is entertained by the fact that she had her family tombstone engraved with her name, and dates 1919-19–, expecting not to make in into the 2000s.)
   It was interesting to watch this film with a Romanian audience, the chief butt of Josef's racism. They laughed. But fell silent at his  discussion of Hitler's treatment of the Jews. Still the ultimate taboo. The true, complicated face of racism and fascism is here, the strange complexities of men and the essence of loneliness.
Seen at Cinema Arta, 5 June 

Wednesday, June 6th
Forever Never Anywhere (Immer nie am Meer) 6/10
Directed by Antonin Svoboda
Austria 2007 88 minutes 
   Three men who dislike each other trapped in a car after a freak crash. Funny? Could be. But though entertaining, this rarely gets beyond the amiable.  Urbane, successful, but not-very-likeable Rafael, his neurotic failure of a brother in law Manfred, and failed comic Schwanenmeister whom they have picked up on the road, are unhurt but unable to either open doors or windows, or even break any of the glass. (There's a comical reason for that.) What's more they've just come from a launch party so there's only champagne  to drink and left over herring salad to eat.
   Their various foibles and bilious relationships, not to mention a few Austrian/German injokes, are funny enough for a while, but it's a welcome sight for us as well as the men when unlikely salvation appears in the form of schoolboy Toni. But it's even more unlikely than we think, and opens another box of quirky possibililties. The occasional delving deeper into more philosophical or whimsically sad territory is usually (wisely) truncated by yet another funny, though the comedy is never quite as good as you might hope, mainly, I think, due to a certain lameness in the drawing of the characters. And didn't you just KNOW someone would drink his own urine?
Still, it's amusing enough, with a few real laugh out louds, and draws to a satisfyingly taut conclusion.
Seen at Republica Cinema 6 June  

Hostage (Omiros) 5/10
Directed by Constantine Giannaris
Greece 2005 105 minutes
   'Inspired by' a hostage incident in 1999, this is a fictionalised story of the hijacking of a bus in Northern Greece by an armed Albanian. Sadly it does not bring anything fresh to the standard' hijack film' scenario. The usual set of characters - mysterious young girls, pair of lovers, kindly black guy, cynical & sweaty druggy, elderly person with heart problem and stoical driver, and 'my boy's a good boy really' grieving mother being conned by the cynical police - do not quite engage our interest or sympathy. And there are no twists to what we have come to expect of the Stockholm syndrome, where hostages and come to form a kind of alliance in regard to the peril from outside.   
   Despite a promising and atmospheric beginning and a  few moments of tension, suspense is not maintained over the long 105 minutes. We never get a real feeling of the claustrophobia inside the stricken bus; we don't feel that much for the passengers; but perhaps the worst fault is a muddled exposition of the hijacker's motives, shown in flashback.  Police corruption, Albanian style vengeance and poverty are all thrown together in a confusing hotchpotch.  An overlay of the political and social antagonisms between Albanians and Greeks is interesting, but it's really too vaguely presented.
Seen at Republica Cinema 6 June

Fresh Air (Friss levego) 7/10
Directed by KOCSIS Agnes
Hungary 2006 109m
   A lovely opening sequence at a singles night dance gets this wry and tender mother/daughter study  off to an intriguing start. Single-parent Viola is looking for love, she's elegant, attractive and feisty, so it comes as a surprise when we see her at her day job, as cleaner at the metro station toilets.  Angela (Izabella Hegyi) her daughter is snooty about her mother's job and her routine when mother comes home from work is to flit like a sprite all around the house opening windows and retreat to her room. Only after Viola's extensive bathing and scent spraying session do they come together to watch a soap on TV.
   Meanwhile at school Angela has dreams of becoming a dress designer, and has found an admirer in physics nerd Emil (Zoltan Kiss). It's a beautiful, smart, truly original film, with stunning performances, especially from Hegyi as the quicksilver daughter.The banal surroundings of working class Budapest are iilluminated by quirky and unexpectedly tender little touches – just like Viola's trimming up and supercleaning of her toilets, and the 'colour coding' – mother wears red (passion, energy, ripeness), daughter green (cool, immature, developing).
   But will Angela find the fresh air she longs for?   An escape bid has an unexpected and comic ending, and finally she makes a decison that, while it may appear to condemn her to following her mother's footsteps, shows a reconciliation between the women and a new maturity. Sad end? Happy end? Both.
Seen at Republica Cinema 6 June
     [previously reviewed by Neil Young at Crossing Europe Film Festival 2007]

Severance                               6/10
Directed by Christopher Smith
UK/Germany 2006 90minutes
   It should be awful. A group of office workers for an arms manufacturing company go to Transilvania for team building weekend. Yes, they get lost in the woods and hole up in a mysterious decrept old lodge with a history. Yes, strange things are sighted through the window, and yes the killings soon begin. It should be awful, but the assembled good British actors, including RSC veteran and erstwhile Mr Rochester Toby Stephens, Tim McInnery, Claudie Blakley, and Canadian Laura Harris do their stuff with brio. Most fun is Danny Dyer, in good geezer mode, and, well, maybe it would be nice to see him sliced or exploded, but… that would be telling.
   Disasters come thick and fast and graphic, and if ever there was a reason not to go paintballing in the woods, here it is. The audience here loved it  – partly no doubt with an aspect of let's laugh at the silly Brits. Well, let's.
Seen at Republica Cinema 6 June
[previously reviewed by Neil Young when on general release in UK, 2006]

Thursday, June 7th
Thursday already, and despite lingering last night till the early hours at the outside tables of Diesel Club on the main square, official Festival rendezvous, I'm up early, awakened by the relentless sun through my shutters, and off to see a film I seem to have been just missing for ten years.

In the Company of Men 9/10

Directed by Neil Labute
USA 1997  97minutes
   A magnificent film, as cold and brutalist as the featureless office buildings in which the drama is played out. Colleagues Chad and Howard are friends from wayback, though maybe that should read  'friends', as there seems little in common between them other than bad experiences at the hands of women. Howard is a miserable dweebish conformist, a born follower, Chad the alpha male, intelligent and the real woman-hater, ( 'They're nothing but meat and gristle and hatred'). So Chad concocts a heartless little scheme of vengeance on the entire sex for their amusement  – to entrap a vulnerable woman, make her believe they are in love with her, lead her on and then come clean, destroy her confidence and break her heart. These two are a little reminiscent of the manipulator/manipulated pair in Strangers on a Train, making their god-awful pact, only this time there is no compromised innocent.  Howard is compliant and enthusiastic, though he, unlike Chad, has no idea how brutal this theoretical game is going to get. 
   Chad soon selects his victim, Christine, an attractive, amiable, deaf woman. And so the game proceeds. All three performances are impeccable, though Aaron Eckhart's smiling, damned villain Chad, in the modes of both hate-filled abuser and double-crossing tender lover, is superb. A portrait of cold nastiness as complete and disturbing as any I have seen on screen. It's very hard, and at times almost unbearable to watch, theatrical, clean and monolithically simple, no subplots, practically just a three-hander, with heightened almost poetic speech in the mode of Mamet (the reiteration of the words  'the company of men' almost becomes a mantra).
   But Chad's deepest vice is not his misogyny but his utter greed for power over others. Has Howard been the true intended victim all the time? This is the truly shocking heart of darkness of the film – that Christine has been almost destroyed not for her own sake or even as a representative of her sex, which is awful enough, but as a mere sideshow, a tool in a some kind of phallic struggle, the only one which really counts in the company of men.  Chad's perverse obsession with maleness has already shown itself in his treatment of the black employee whom he makes show his genitals as a literal proof of his  'balls'. Howard has failed the test for true manhood, he has shown emotion. A compelling, repellent, masterpiece.
Seen at Republica Cinema 7 June

Reprise 7/10
Directed by Joachim Trier
Norway 2006  105 minutes
   Memories of Francois Truffaut's limpid early films haunt this freewheeling study of friendship, romance and growing up, that also (less successfully?) looks into the creative urge and its mixed blessings. Erik and Philip, best friends from childhood, both want to be writers, and in an entertaining prologue we see what Erik imagines will happen when they submit novels to a publisher and have grand successes and then fascinating, romantically poetic and successful lives. The truth is a little different. At first Philip's novel is taken up and Erik's is not, but the success brings near-catastrophic mental illness to Philip, while Erik suffers a jealousy which he tries to hide. Meanwhile the group of friends they have grown up with cavort, play music, party, meet and talk about things trivial and deeply meaningful, as young people do.
   The great soundtrack reinforces the dark and light times of young, relatively well-heeled twenty somethings trying to find out who they are and what their lives will be, as the film skips nimbly from comedy to gloom and back. A trip to Paris is particularly nouvelle vague-esque, as is the striking Viktoria Winge playing Kari, Philip's girlfriend, a little reminiscent of the young Anna Karina.   It's better when vague and rather whimsical than when addressing more weighty matters head-on, and does twist around in its intriguing patterns for maybe too long. And, like young people full of themselves and of life in general, the characters do get a mite tiresome at times. But the director shows he has a magically light touch when not trying too hard to show meaning but letting it emerge of itself. Another Trier to look out for. 
Seen at Republica Cinema 7 June
[previously reviewed by Neil Young at Crossing Europe Film Festival 2007]

When the Road Bends – Tales of a Gipsy Caravan   8/10
Directed by Jasmine Dellal
USA 2006  110 minutes
   A finely structured account of a remarkable concert tour taken by a group of five sets of gipsy musicians around the United States and Canada, this is both an important record of artists and their performances and an opportunity to hear gipsies talking and reflecting on their lives and to see them both in relation to the  'gadjo'(non-gipsy) world and to each other.
   From Northern India, whence the Roma first originated, from Romania, Macedonia and Spain, singers and dancers, including the famous  'Queen of the Gipsies' singer Esma, perform individually and in various combinations to increasingly ecstatic audiences. Offstage we get to know them as individuals and see their environments and families back home, for the most part very poor. Of all of them only Esma seems to have become very modestly wealthy, and she has used her money to adopt over 40 orphans over the years, many of whom now play in her band.
   The wonderful Fanfare Ciocarlia, the hot brass band that brought the audience to its feet here at last year's closing ceremony are there.  There's dancing too, with the young Indian who performs an amazing twirling transvestite dance, continually rising up and falling to his knees, and Antonio de Pipa's flamenco, the most contained and disciplined of all, whose aunt accompanies him with her remarkable voice, and talks of the duende, when your flesh shivers in recognition of the power of music, and of her mother, a big woman, who when she danced was  'like a cathedral'.
   Most impressive of all, for me, was the string-playing group of Taraf de Haidouks, one of the Romanian ensembles, composed mainly of elderly men for all the world like old blokes you'd see downing their brown ale in a northern working men's club. With the band's earnings they keep their village alive. Their rasping voices, with surprising echoes of blues and black music, brought the real duende to me,
   It's a message out to the world about gipsies  and their easygoing philosophy of life, their persecutions through the centuries right up to the Nazis and even now still going strong – for example Romanian Roma have until very recently not dared to perform in their country. But most of all it's the music, the extremes of passion, the rhythms and soaring voices that got American audiences on their feet, and I half thought might have us all dancing out of the cinema and into the night.
Seen at Republica Cinema 7 June

An Angel Hooked On Me (Ingerul necesar) 4/10
Directed by Gheorghe Preda
Romania 2007 90 minutes
   Ana is a successful avant-garde musician who lives in a beautiful but sterile house and composes harsh music which utilises unorthodox instruments. But her very controlled existence is disrupted by a secret admirer who leaves messages and signs for her in public places, with his  'signature' of big blue flowers painted across buildings, on buses, and inside her home. What are his intentions? Is he a sincere would-be lover or a stalker?  Does he on fact, exist? Meanwhile her composing becomes troubled, with flashbacks, in jagged black and white, to fearful incidents from her childhood, and frightening quasi abductions lead her to involve the police.
   It's an ambitious film made with panache, that is always intriguing, but for me increasingly irritating too, as its style and rather empty stabs at a surrealist agenda led down increasingly blind alleys. True surrealism has to be grounded in logic and the real world which it is destabilising; here nothing seemed real in the first place. The music and many of the images are very striking, particularly in the childhood sequences, but we keep being let down by less powerful moments – a blue-painted clown (the death-knell of subtlety), slow pace, repetition, lack of any feeling of consequentiality. Ana's totally illogical final decision to  'go on a date with him', as she expresses it to her friend is incomprehensible, and rather than being existentially mysterious, the film just ends in bafflement.
Seen at Republica Cinema, 7 June

Friday 8 June
4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days – Tales from the Golden Age (4 luni, 3 saptimani si 2 zile – Amintiri din Epoca de Aur)  9/10
Directed by Cristian Mungiu
Romania  2007  110 minutes
This bleak, utterly gripping film was a worthy winner of the Palme d'Or at Cannes a couple of weeks ago, and was inevitably sold out at all screenings here.  A sticky, queasy, communal experience undertaken in a totally silent cinema.
   Otilia (Anamaria Marinca) and Gabita (Laura Visiliu) are fellow students in a dingy hall of residence who are setting off on a journey – that it is for Gabita to have an illegal abortion is not revealed for some time, though there will be few audiences who do not know this. Gabita seems to have lost all stamina and will to act, has lied about her pregnancy, making more problems, and failed to manage practical details, so it is on her friend (and what a friend) Otilia that the burden of organisation falls – sorting out the hotel room when their original reservation is lost, contacting the abortionist, making the practical preparations and getting rid of the result.
   Not only abortion, but also contraception were illegal in the latter days of Ceausescu's Romania, (his answer to the perceived need for a bigger workforce), making the illegal abortion fairly commonplace (the other product of this policy of course being the burgeoning  'orphanages' of abandoned children). Difficult viewing for anyone, far more so for the women in the audience who were here and young in those years.
   Thinking back you remember it almost as a black and white film – apart from one single horror of red. More of that later. Relentless grey landscapes and interiors, glimpses of the ghastly tedium of daily life – a queue snaking out of a shop, crowded and poorly furnished student rooms, the tatty streets and rundown cars, drawn, tired people, bureaucracy and surveillance all around – form the backdrop for this awful journey undertaken by the two women. Concealment is everywhere, with a darkness always creeping into the corners of ill-lit interiors and even of daylight scenes.
   It's shot unsensationally but totally compellingly in long takes which stress the grim claustrophobia of these lives, and make it feel like real time, reinforcing the impression that we are going through the experience with them as powerless observers. A particularly impressive example is at Otilia's boyfriend's parent's anniversary party, where she has to drop in, for the sake of normality: a long scene of naturalistic conversation by the older people reminiscing about their years of life together, grouped around Otilia's hyper-anxious, still, centre.
   There are no shocking visual sensations except one, when we get a sudden view of the bloody foetus, a great block of red against the greyness, all the more shocking because everything so far has been so monochrome and understated.  Is this going too far? It certainly has enormous shock value, and fills the final section where Otilia has to dispose of it with a sickening horror as she pounds the grim night-time streets in feverish indecision to the sound of barking dogs in the distance, a vision of hell. But I tend to think it is right to show it – it's the actual and metaphorical centre of the film, something destroyed, a life, lives, a society.
   The three central performances are marvellous -   Laura Visiliu as the hesitant, foolish girl at her wits' end, Vlad Ivanov as the mysterious Mr Bebe the abortionist, no kindly Vera Drake he, but a solid, powerful, strangely at times almost avuncular figure – but the uncle of your worst nightmares. And supremely, Anamaria Marinca as the strong, good friend who takes all the weight of the business morally and physically. If you're looking for something positive to bring from this film, it is the strength of friendship, no matter what, though a friendship which will never be the same again, equally corrupted by the dark days of the  'Golden Age', as Mungiu ironically subtitles the film.
Seen at the Republica Cinema, 8 June
[nb : click HERE for our review of Mungiu's debut feature, Occident (2002)]

Cover Boy… The Last Revolution (Cover-Boy… L'ultima revoluzione) 6/10
Directed by Carmine Amoroso
Italy 2006  97 minutes
   Poverty at the edges of society, along with a story of unrequitable love, and western society's betrayal of genuine suffering for the purposes of the market, are the themes woven rather uncomfortably together in this fine-looking and beautifully acted but soft-centred film.
   Ioan (Eduard Gabia) is a fatherless young man whose doctor father died nobly during the fighting in Bucharest in 1989 when he was small, which we witness in a promising prologue.  He's persuaded to travel to Italy to seek his fortune by his freewheeling friend, but on the train, friend is arrested, and on arriving in Rome, knowing no one, Ioan struggles for survival on the streets. Here he meets railway station cleaner Michele (Luca Lionello), another kind of immigrant, this time from within, from the South, and after a rather predictable encounter where it is instantly clear that an element of Michele's interest is sexual, Ioan shares Michele's flat and the two forge a happy relationship, Ioan innocently unaware of Michele's interest, and Michele making do with friendship. They plan to save up from their meagre earnings and open a restaurant in the Danube Delta.   It could be horribly cliché, but the acting, especially that of Luca Lionello, who won the Best Actor award here at Cluj, is lovely and understated and affecting.
   The whole thing rather comes apart about two thirds into the film when, as has spoilingly been signalled by the title, Ioan is spotted as model potential on the street, and whisked away to the fashion fleshpots of  Milan by a keen (and of course attractive) female photographer, Laura, whose intentions are clear from the outset. Michele is devastated. He knows the score.  There then follows far too much business in the preening world of fashion parades and tiresome arty gatherings, as Ioan's innocent and open face and manner are taken up by the beau monde. Eventually Laura goes too far and Ioan recognises how he and his heritage are being exploited.
Although this last third of the film delivers the  'moral' of the story, the earlier, more naturalistic part, showing the poverty of mere existence in an affluent society and the warmth of a love that is content to stay necessarily platonic, is the more satisfying by far.
Seen at Republica Cinema, 8 June

The sky is still a soft royal blue and the night only just beginning to cool for this 9.30 outdoor showing in a handsome courtyard of one of the university buildings, and seeing the stars begin to come out and the odd low plane overhead on its way to the airport are additional pleasures. Perhaps this is partly the reason that, though I liked a lot about this film, it failed to frighten or really engage me…
Bad Blood (Coisa Ruim) 6/10
Directed by Tiago Guedes
Portugal 2006  97 minutes
   It's a good looking, serious film, though there's nothing new about the basic plot. A city family moves to an old run-down ancestral house in the country, and soon find that it is a backwater where much superstition is still rife among the peasant population, and their friendly overture are rebuffed by the locals. A young priest battles with his conscience as to how far superstition should be embraced by the church, and meanwhile as the inevitable tragic facts emerge about the house's past, fissures appear within the family itself – the troubled youngest son is isolated and sensitive, the mother is not wholeheartedly happy about the move, the daughter's illegitimate baby is shown to have been a point of conflict with her father which still lingers, an older son arrives for a visit and soon shows he is not the perfect son his mother thinks.
   Chills are at first minor and mundane, strange noises within the house, odd figures glimpsed outside, and the urban rationalists laugh and talk away the possibility of the existence of the supernatural, at the same time failing to discuss amongst themselves their increasingly odd individual experiences. It's good to see an adult horror film that actually tries to look into the inexplicable in a rational way, but really there's too much talking and not enough development of menace. More interesting are the family's own dynamics, particularly the question of the baby's unknown father, and the rather sadistic nature of the elder son. So much expectation is fed on this subject that it's disappointing that the climax reverts to a standard format which does not bring the themes together, and the eventual disaster is surprisingly unengaging. The director's considerable talents may well lie in other genres.
Seen at Cinema Echinox,  8 June

Saturday, June 9th
Saturday, the last full day of the festival. No films I want to see this morning, so I use the relatively cooler time of day to investigate the Botanic Gardens up the hill to the south of the city.  They're very impressive: flowers, obviously, winding paths amongst woodland, a Japanese garden, and three giant glasshouses of striking modern design, one so tall it accommodates fully grown tropical trees. But my visit is more exciting than I expected because there's some kind of children's treasure hunt going on, and figures in special costumes are lurking in quiet corners waiting to be found and award those finding them with a sticker. So there's a beautiful Ancient Egyptian girl by a little iron bridge and Prince Charming in the rose garden. Quite surreal. Hitting my head on a beam as I climb the steps of the water tower to take in the view over the city probably helps the general air of disengagement with reality.
But then it's time to leave, past the wedding party at the gates with gipsy accordion player in attendance, and descend through the baking streets, past the public building where lots of young people are dancing to tango music which floats out of the open windows, past the flower sellers at  the cemetery gates, picking up a peach from the market en route, one of those that gets all over you from the first bite.

The Beheaded Rooster (Cocosul decapitat) 6/10
Directed by Radu Gabrea
Romania 2007  98 minutes
   A good looking film with  perfect period feel, this is based on a novel by Eginald Schlattner about the effect of the coming of World War II on the mixed community of Germans, Hungarians, Romanians and Jews who lived in the area of Fagoras in Transilvania.  It's also a coming of age drama/romance, and it's in the combination of the two that it comes slightly unstuck.
   We see the tolerant (as it is presented) pre-war society of this civilised  rural area being torn apart by the arrival of Fascism and the threat of war, through the naïve eyes of Felix (David Zimmerscheid), son of a liberal and prosperous German/Hungarian family, who opts to join the Hitler Youth Movement almost as one would join the boy scouts, for the adventure and camaraderie, and to be with his best friend Hans, the local chimneysweep's son. These two spend an impossibly idyllic and innocent summer on the brink of sexuality, larking about with two schoolfriends, Alfa (Ioana Iacob), wealthy and sophisticated daughter of the big house, and Gisela (Alicja Bachleda-Curus), daughter of the Jewish cinema owner.
   But the shadow of the war, with its anti-semitism and militarisation, in which Romania is allied to Germany, muddies all their relationships, and despite Felix's attempts to be true to his friends no matter what, the end is tragic and the perfect world of Fagoras gone forever.
   The problem was, I couldn't really believe in these characters, or, in the end, in their situations. All four, with the possible exception of David Zimmerscheid, who brought a gangly kind of innocence to Felix, looked older than their supposed 15/16 years. But then Felix was surely too innocent, and his clinging on to his relationship with Hans, a rat if ever there was one, after so many betrayals, was unlikely in the extreme. The anti-semitism, after some violence early on, was muted – would Gisela really have been able to carry on living in the area, (yes, she was living in seclusion, but hardly hidden, and attending social gatherings) once Fascism was rampant?
   Perhaps most disappointing of all was the fact that Hans' extremism was simplistically blamed on his being working class and thereby fuelled by envy, though we saw no real development of his character to back this up this rationale. There was too much concentrating on the soft-focussed burgeoning sexuality and shifting relationships of the four young people, not enough on how things beyond them were changing. So when strife comes, we aren't quite sure how it has arisen in such an idyllic place, other than from an outside force. Which isn't really enough.
Seen at Victoria Cinema, 9 June

The Trap (Klopka) 8/10
Directed by Srdjan Golubovic
Serbia 2007  106 minutes 
   A harsh, existential thriller, this, which is also a terrific portrait of life in the grey, hopeless suburbs of contemporary Belgrade.
   Mladen and Marija are both professionals, he an architect, she a teacher, who nevertheless, working for the state, are relatively poor. So when their young son is suddenly diagnosed with a life-threatening condition that only a trip to a specialist hospital in Germany can put right, there is no way they can afford it, and their lives are ripped apart as they realise their powerlessness. No-one can help, so Marija puts an ad in the newspaper (apparently a common resort) asking for financial help.
   A response from a mysterious caller presents Mladen with an offer he cannot accept yet can hardly refuse since the life of his son is at stake. It's stomach clenching, unbearable to watch, as this everyman is forced into an evil act which will hopefully save his son. Ironies pile upon ironies, as he descends into a spiral of guilt. What would you do to save your child's life?
   Meanwhile in the streets, in the post-Milosevic  'society in transition', wealth and poverty co-exist in a corrupt dead-hearted society where criminals with expensive cars can do as they please and little boys live on the margins washing car windscreens.
   All framed by a  'confession' by Mladen to an unknown listener, the stunning ending can be seen as the ultimate tragedy, or a kind of redemption. A member of the audience remarked on its utter sadness. It's a sad country,' responded the director.
Seen at Republica Cinema, 9 June

Sunday, June 10th
Last morning: despite the heat, well into the thirties yesterday, and feeling at least as hot this morning despite a refreshing storm last night, I climb the rather wonky stone steps of the  'Citadel' hill, topped by a big modern hotel which used to be the Securitate headquarters. What a site for Big Brother. A shady terrace café gives respite with a beer and lovely views over the scruffy/beautiful city and the rolling country around, rising to serious mountains to the south. The domed Hungarian Theatre and pleasant wooded park are below, with the huge Cathedral in the central square lording it over the mix of typical Eastern European roof profiles, domes, blocky Sixties horrors, and the odd neat new post-revolution edifice, like the Transilvania Bank, all glass and white tiles, beneath which men in vests stand fishing on the gritty little beach of the opaque green river, swollen by last night's storm. I found a disused cinema, the Favorit, over on this side of the river, a fine though grimy deco building with heroic plaster decorations, the entrance apparently in the block of flats next door with the word Cinema still emblazoned over the door where an elderly lady now sells drinks and sweets.
It brought to mind the words of the festival's honorary president, Tudor Giurgiu, at the closing ceremony last night, about how fragile cinema had become until recently in Romania, with many cinemas closing and the lowest proportion of cinemagoers in Europe. After these last six days this seems unbelievable to me, because one of the most impressive things about this festival has been the audiences, with many screenings sold out, and not one of even the morning or early afternoon ones that I attended less than half full. And there's no passivity about these audiences either, they respond with vigour and sometimes shockingly honest reactions to what they're watching. Howls of laughter at the schlock-horror of Severance, a communal intake of breath at Luca Lionello's despairing face of loss in Cover-Boy, derision at the anti-Romanian sentiments expressed in Beyond the Forest, and a silence as deep as any I've experienced in a cinema during the horrors of  4 Months…  But with the triumphant productions of the last few years and now the supreme prize at Cannes, things will change. There's so much talent, originality and sheer life in Romanian cinema now that it has to be one of the most creative and exciting in Europe, and the rest of the world is starting to take notice.  Here's to the next TIFF.

Sheila Seacroft
June 2007

[still online : last year's dispatches]