Cluj 2015: the first of two dispatches by Sheila Seacroft

The hottest TIFF yet, everyone’s saying so. It’s hot, walking down Bulevardul Eroilor between films, so hot you have to stop for a fresh lemonade at one of the pavement cafes. It’s hot, even in the air-conditioned Cinema Florin Persic during the sell-out nose-to-tail screenings of five excellent Romanian films on Romania Days. So hot that I duck out and save one for tomorrow, taking myself instead to the shadiness of the Botanic Gardens up the hill, where parents and children stroll and sit and look at story books and a school party besieges the ice cream kiosk. Down in the town Betty’s Ices are doing a roaring trade too, and it’s properly hot for Margaritas (a weak one please, I have a film to watch!) at the early evening gathering at the marquee in the square where you can enjoy a few sociable moments in the shade before scuttling off to your next screening, hoping the warmth and alcohol won’t shuffle you off into the arms of Morpheus. It’s still gorgeously warm in the late evening for the screenings in Piaţa Unirii, and even later walking back under a butter-yellow moon from another mad party in the delightfully decadent crumbling glamour of the old Hotel Continental. The flower stalls at the bottom of my street might this year have become corralled into a row of permanent units instead of spilling out anarchically over the pavements, but they still smell amazing, as family and friends of graduands at the Student House next door stop off to buy bouquets to celebrate. The cars still try to beat you to the zebra crossings, the hole-in-the-walls are selling fresh placinte cu branza, streets are crammed as usual with vibrant Transilvanian life, and as an eminent critic said, in the first week of June there’s nowhere else in the world to be but Cluj.

If in the past there has been a worry, in a country that still has the smallest proportion of cinemas to population, that critical success abroad has not meant a true national cinema, seeing that multiplexes here are mostly full of international, mostly English language, fare, then this year’s Romania Days can begin to allay that fear. The range of features this year have the healthy look of a cinema that’s accessible but of a sometimes stunning artistic quality which will win it festival and art house distribution anywhere. They commanded near-full houses in the 1000-capacity Florin Piersic, one of the biggest cinemas in the country, and it was particularly satisfying to see that Aferim!, already on distribution in the country for 3 months, still filled every seat.

But being Cluj there are also more unorthodox places to watch. It’s not always possible to dissociate a film from the circumstances in which you see it, and this is very true for my very special viewing of Porumboiu’s Un Certain Regard prizewinner The Treasure (Comoara), seen late at the quirky Arkhai Sculpture Park, way out of town, where a natural grassy amphitheatre provided seating for intrepid guests and lively locals, a cheerful line of female village worthies d’un certain age taking up the front row in their traditional dress. The delicious fresh air, the increasing chill of the night, the huge full moon placed almost perfectly above the woods, all gave an added zing to this modern fairy tale set mostly in a night-time suburban garden. Nice Costi (Cuzin Toma) is asked by his skint neighbour to help him get hold of a metal detector and look for the ‘treasure’ he believes is in his grandfather’s garden. He’ll give him half of whatever they find. Along with the well-meaning wheeler-dealer who supplies the detector, over a very long night they (mostly the amenable Costi) dig, become muddy and tetchy, and argue, the two metal detectors providing additional characters of their own with their unfathomable graphics and insouciant screeches in the dim light. As the light around us grew dimmer we were there in the film, almost. Porumboiu’s trademark dry wit, sense of absurdity, almost Socratic dialogue, and good nose for human foibles is tempered more than ever with a tenderness for ordinary life. He’s a director who certainly likes to test the patience of his audience and make them work hard for the denouement, and here he’s found the perfect plot, for even the most impatient viewer can’t resist a treasure hunt, and as the night grows long and dark and nothing is found, you find yourself unable to will the hapless seekers to give up. A rather discordant, literally, post credit sequence, is rather puzzling, but it’s a film that looks kindlily on people and their sometimes childish aspirations.

Meanwhile back in the steamy daytime cinema, Tudor Giurgiu’s Why Me? (De ce eu?) is a sound and suspenseful recreation of a real story of a young prosecutor used and then hung out to dry by his superiors when the he delves deeper than they want in the internal investigation he thinks will make his name. Employing many of the standard tropes of the spy thriller in the John le Carré mould, it ultimately becomes more of a mood piece of character development, as Cristian (the excellent Emilian Oprea) moves from chirpy optimist bound for a high-flying career to hounded loner, aware his own cleverness and amour propre has been used by a rotten system.

Murky deeds too in Radu Muntean’s impressive One Floor Below (Un etaj mai jos) where controlled use of a thriller situation almost immediately has us more intrigued by the character and motivation of an honest man who doesn’t do the right thing. Teodor Corban, also seen this year as the lead in Aferim! (see below), is Sandu, a man with a happy family life. His main preoccupations one fateful day as he returns to his flat from walking his dog, is trying to keep his impending middle age spread under control, and success at the forthcoming dog-show. He overhears a violent argument in a young woman’s downstairs flat between her and a lairy young neighbour, Vali, whom, standing around inquisitively a little too long, he sees leaving. Next day it’s discovered she has been murdered. It’s pretty clear to Sandu, and to us, who the killer is, but he says nothing. For the rest of the film he’s almost constantly on camera, mesmerically good as we watch his face and share his disquiet, even if we don’t quite understand or indeed approve of his silence, while Vali, knowing full well that he was seen, begins to insinuate himself in sinister-jocular fashion into Sandu’s life and become big mates with his son. An odd relationship develops, not threatening, exactly, but a kind of inverted blackmail. Keeping your head down, the feeling that if you don’t get involved it’s as if the bad thing isn’t happening, is by no means just a Romanian trait, though it may have special resonance there, as Sandu is tortured more by his silence and what it may lead to as he would have been by speaking out. His much-loved ordinary life will not be the same again, despite the open-ended resolution.

The World is Mine (Lumea e a mea) is maybe a little too taken with its subject, a naive teenager for whom the world may not be as easily up for grabs as she hopes it will be. In the inward-looking atmosphere of small-town school rivalries and untrustworthy young men, 16-year-old Larissa, from a tough background, believes in herself, her companions and the good life – until complex realities shatter her confidence. An almost constant screen presence, Ana-Maria Gurun is terrific as the girl growing up fast in a very modern world. A first feature from Nicolae Constantin Tanase, it might profitably have been trimmed of some of its more extended sequences, but when it does pack a punch it’s a powerful one.

Another look at the life of the young today is in the documentary Toto and his Sisters (Toto şi surorile lui) by Alexander Nanau. Ten-year-old bright-spark Toto and his sisters are waiting for their mother to come out of prison (though glimpses of her failing to get her parole release don’t inspire confidence that things will get any better when she does). Meanwhile the children are living with their shiftless young uncles in a house used by a succession of drug dealers and users, where Toto regularly beds down for the night on a needle-littered sofa where transactions are still sometimes taking place. The girls deal with the situation in their own ways, the 14-year-old Andreea sometimes getting out to stay with friends and have some kind of normal teenage life, while the elder Ana finds it hard not to succumb to the ever-accessible drugs. As the film progresses it is partly through Andreea’s eyes – literally, as she is given a camera to record day to day life herself – that we watch this difficult situation and share the pain of her choices. In the end she makes the hard decision to leave the family flat with Toto for an orphanage – a word with bad associations in the west since the 90s – but one that here provides a comfortable and secure home for them both. And Toto, now also learning to read, finds a surprising saviour in a street dancing class, which he has an unexpected and real talent for. A moving tribute to resilience and to the dedicated adults who nurture it, it’s a film of remarkable skill, in the best tradition of objective and compassionate social documentaries.


But the film I most admired, one which provided total immersion into cinematic experience and left me gasping with pure delight, despite its very dark moments, was Radu Jude’s black and white extravaganza Aferim! Beginning like a Western, with two figures on horseback in the middle distance, and gorse and thistles standing in for emblematic cactuses, it’s a journey through early feudal C19th Romania in the company of a gruff law officer (Teodor Corban) and his young son in pursuit of an escaped gypsy slave (Cuzin Toma, who, in a role where he spends most of the time with feet bound slung over a horse, nevertheless brings considerable humanity and depth). It’s a road trip that goes to many dark places but is also full of exuberant life, as their quest becomes increasingly morally questionable, and the status quo which the constable is so secure in at the beginning is seen to be rotten and untenable. But along the way, you can’t help but be delighted by the characters and situations they meet – hard-working raggle-taggle peasants, high falutin’ Turks, and most delicious of all a crazily xenophobic priest who has a particular bad word to say about every nation in Europe. And an extra pleasure was the appearance of the wonderful Luminiţa Gheorghiu – whom I was beginning to think I might not see this TIFF – in a brief but powerful cameo as a forthright peasant.

It’s also the naturalism of the film that impresses, with its wonderfully orchestrated and no doubt painstakingly researched ‘goings on of busy life’ a constant backdrop to the pair’s increasing moral doubts – little girls dance unnoticed in their shiny dresses as the pair leave a chaotic village behind, someone throws up in the corner of the screen after last night’s party. The end of the quest brings more darkness than relief, and reminiscent of Re-enactment’s football crowd observers watching an absurd, state-decreed violence half horrified half fascinated, the lawman finds himself just another powerless onlooker, no more than a tool of the system he enforces after all. People in 200 years, he says with increasing doubt, will be glad that we smoothed things over for them. Hope might be present too in the person of his softer but more morally aware son, hope for a future simpler, maybe, and easier than what was actually to come. The film is gorgeous to look at, shot in 35mm, though shown in digital format – how great it would have been to see this shimmering film showing its true range of light and shade.

Sheila Seacroft
27th June 2015