Making Waves Review: The Bucuresti Experiment (2013)

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Cast: Carmen Anton, Andrei Juvina
Director: Tom Wilson
Country: Romania
Genre: Documentary | Drama
Official Trailer: Here


Editor’s NotesThe following review is part of our coverage for the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s Making Waves Romanian Film Festival, which runs from November 29th to December 3rd. For more information visit FilmLinc.com and follow FilmLinc on Twitter at @FilmLinc.

Any devotee of contemporary Romanian cinema will point you to the prominent distinction between two strands in the country’s filmic output. There are those realism-inclined movies concerned with issues facing the nation now, and there is the plethora of pictures that—like in any country relieved of a regime that oppressed free speech—retrospectively deal with the problems of the past. But then, of course, there is the handful of exceptions: the films that concern themselves directly with the point of the 1989 revolution that overthrew Nicolae Ceaușescu’s rule and take sight of the country right at the point of historical change. From 12:08 East of Bucharest’s hilariously lampooning of the underlying politics to The Paper Will Be Blue’s military perspective on the paradigm shift to How I Celebrated the End of the World’s child’s-eye view, the revolution has found its share of screen representation.

It’s an immensely difficult line to straddle, which makes all the more impressive Wilson’s determined refusal to reveal his hand as the “narrative” progresses, leaving us clueless as to the truth of this tale and thus made to ponder its potential unreality and, by implication, the absurdity of the fact that some of the more surprising things the interviewees claim could be true.

the_bucuresti_experiment_2013_4The Bucuresti Experiment joins this restricted subset of cinema with its own documentary take on the point of change and the interim split in Romanian society. Directed by Englishman Tom Wilson, its ostensible focus is the eponymous experiment, which—as more details of its nature come to be revealed—exposes frightening truths on the sinister background to the revolution. More important, perhaps, is its focus on the decades-dormant relationship between one organiser of the experiment and his partner of the time, whose conflicting reports of the period and divergent paths since are Wilson’s primary means of exploring his issues. But then comes a point, about thirty minutes into the film, where one interviewee seems oddly audacious, almost as though this were an actor in a role. Here, Wilson sows the seed of doubt, this offhand gesture to the potential fictionality of the story he tells casting everything we have learned—and all we subsequently learn—in the shadow of doubt.

Currently continuing to work the style better than any other, this time on TV in the form of HBO’s Family Tree, Christopher Guest stands as the definitive high water mark for mockumentary, his brilliant utilisation of its implications of realism a perfect exemplar of its ability to capture plausible absurdity. It’s an immensely difficult line to straddle, which makes all the more impressive Wilson’s determined refusal to reveal his hand as the “narrative” progresses, leaving us clueless as to the truth of this tale and thus made to ponder its potential unreality and, by implication, the absurdity of the fact that some of the more surprising things the interviewees claim could be true. It’s a savvy political statement, using this aesthetic to demonstrate the stranger-than-fiction behind-the-scenes reality of Romanian politics; or rather, that’s the intent with which Wilson deploys it.

If it’s pitched in jest, deadpan comedy used to highlight the patent absurdity of all that went on in the country at this time, it’s simply not funny enough: this is wit so dry it chafes. If it’s as serious as it seems, and the experiments it postulates indeed took place, it’s nothing shocking enough to warrant such an exposé; knowing what we do about the crimes of Ceaușescu and his regime, those claimed herein seem positively mundane by contrast.

the_bucuresti_experiment_2013_3The reality, sadly, is that neither this director nor his film can quite manage to channel the potential of this idea to anything existing beyond a purely conceptual stage. Its effect hinging on our inability to discern fact from fiction, The Bucresti Experiment hasn’t the stakes to support its weighty intentions. If it’s pitched in jest, deadpan comedy used to highlight the patent absurdity of all that went on in the country at this time, it’s simply not funny enough: this is wit so dry it chafes. If it’s as serious as it seems, and the experiments it postulates indeed took place, it’s nothing shocking enough to warrant such an exposé; knowing what we do about the crimes of Ceaușescu and his regime, those claimed herein seem positively mundane by contrast. This is a film that smartly plays narrative and documentary against one another to blur the lines between; it appears to have forgotten, along the way, to find a good reason for doing so.

It would be imprudent to reveal the reality of The Bucuresti Experiment, predicated as the film’s effect is on withholding that information until the very last minute. It’s indicative of its manifest problems, though, that when the revelation is followed by a full immersion in the true style—be it comedy or documentary—that the movie spirals out of control with frightening, dangerous speed. There’s a fine feature idea hiding here within the framework Wilson erects, but he hasn’t the wit or wisdom to bring it to fruition. It’s ever more a mere concept than it is a movie at all, courtesy of a positively disastrous execution: a word more apt than ever it should be.

[notification type=”star”]45/100 ~ BAD. There’s a fine feature idea hiding within The Bucuresti Experiment, but it hasn’t the wit or wisdom to bring it to fruition.[/notification]

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About Author

Ronan Doyle is an Irish freelance film critic, whose work has appeared on Indiewire, FilmLinc, Film Ireland, FRED Film Radio, and otherwhere. He recently contributed a chapter on Arab cinema to the book Celluloid Ceiling, and is currently entangled in an all-encompassing volume on the work of Woody Allen. When not watching movies, reading about movies, writing about movies, or thinking about movies, he can be found talking about movies on Twitter. He is fuelled by tea and has heard of sleep, but finds the idea frightfully silly.