Editor’s Notes: The following dispatch is part of our coverage of the Transilvania International Film Festival. For more information visit http://tiff.ro/en and follow TIFF Romania on Twitter at @tiffromania.
There aren’t many places on the planet that have more cinematic cachet to boast these days than Transylvania: from its age-old iterations in Dracula films innumerable to its prominent role now in the midst of the Romanian New Wave, the region sat at the feet of the Carpathians this month plays host to the 13th annual Transylvania International Film Festival. Unlucky for some, but fortunate for you: we’re looking forward to the Romanian Days sidebar kicking off later in the week, but for now I’ll be your man on the ground in Cluj-Napoca covering the competition, reserved exclusively for first- and second-time filmmakers. It looks like a heck of a selection, with plenty else on the many sprawling sidebars to catch the eye: so let’s get down to business, and talk about all seen so far.
Minds inclined to meander might, at a concluding point of Something Must Break, be drawn to dwell on Laurence Anyways. There’s a near-identical shot in each film—albeit at the beginning in the other—with near-identical connotations; the difference, of course, is that this new effort never earns its iteration. As the transgender Sebastian strides down the street, head held high for the first time as Ellie, the movie celebrates the coming-of-confidence drama it’s failed to convincingly portray. Able experience both in these shoes and with a camera can’t help erstwhile documentarian Ester Martin Bergsmark overcome the terribly telegraphed tripartite structure of her script, where actions are ever more the outcome of the film’s intended endpoint than the characters’ emotional responses. Rubicon-crossing slow-motion tableaux vivants of our hero(ine) in repose as burly men beside relieve themselves are as creakily free of subtlety as the soundtrack’s use of a freight train to mark the demise of a key relationship, and only slightly less unpleasant. Egregiously over-eager camerawork and cutting leaves one to wonder how the effort’s earnestness—and boy, it’s earnest—could hide from the awarding Rotterdam jury its ineffectiveness.
It just wouldn’t be right, in Transylvania of all places, not to have horror in some sort of sight. So to the Shadows Shorts, an eclectic selection of genre brevities given pride of place ahead of each competition screening. Before Vis-à-Vis came Mémoires Vives, a suitably strange effort from Frenchman Fabrice Mathieu shot with the chief actor projected into an arrangement of miniature scenes crafted by the artist Marc Giai-Miniet. It’s a magnificently odd idea that pays dividends only intermittently; while the green screen largely works well, the home-made visual effects translate poorly to the big screen, making for an ostensibly eerie voyage into the afterlife with a dead atmosphere immediately. Still, there’s much to be marvelled at here, not least of all the conviction of Mathieu’s dialogue-free script and a concluding tracking shot that makes you wish the rest of the movie were that good.
It was better, at least, than the feature it supported: another novel idea’s enough to invest in Vis-à-Vis, which traces the strained relationship between a debut director and the soap star he’s tapped for a leading role as they take to the eponymous Croat isle to workshop the script. Pained parallels aplenty to follow as each man reveals deep personal secrets to the other—secrets any half-awake audience member ought to have figured in the opening reel. A smattering of solid comedy helps soften the blow, though the resolute irresolution of director Nevio Marasovic’s imagery is sure to infuriate even the most undiscerning of eyes. Strong performances from the primaries are all that’s left to alleviate, and that they do: Rakan Rushaidat and Janko Volaric Popvic seem, for all the world, to be in a far better movie than that we see. Check my full review for a more thorough disavowal.
Those three films constituted the entirety of this critic’s opening day in Cluj, courtesy of travel arrangements that made anything but a morning chocked with sleep seem silly to consider. Bright and early beginning the next morn, then, with an AM trot through the sun-soaked streets lifting the spirits so as to almost Floating Skyscrapers an unfair advantage. The apathy toward the director, Tomasz Wasilewski, ought to have evened the score then: his In a Bedroom was the competition entry I liked second-to-least last year—no poor show from a particularly strong slate—and the generic gay setup of this latest looked set to continue the trend. But lo and behold, in lending his talented eye to a story we’ve all seen before, Wasilewski has found a peculiar strength in renovation, reconstituting a trope-tastic tale with a fresh passion that makes undeniably involving this narrative, no matter the familiarity. More in my full review as to why it’s the competition standout so far.
T’was a bittersweet feeling to stare into the projection booth after Red Psalm and see the celluloid whose sounds, as the movie began, had set my heart aflutter. Jay Weissberg had no uncertain words in the festival’s daily paper when he lamented that “we’re not going back”, and given the rest of the day spent trying to tell when I last saw film projected—such things are as good as extinct in my native Ireland—it’s hard not to appreciate his ire. But no writer could make a case as clear for celluloid as Miklós Jancsó does with this 1972 Hungarian masterpiece set at the dawn of communism and shot in a scarcity of takes that must fall shy of thirty in number—I got too caught up in the film to keep count. A majestic musical that’s violent and frightening and uplifting and hilarious, Red Psalm’s enormously intricate shots recall the more radical work of Theo Angelopoulos and inform—we can only imagine—the imagery of Béla Tarr, whose Satantango seems the optimum opposite bookend to this magnificent milestone of Hungarian film.
A co-writer credit on 2012’s Transylvania Trophy winner Oslo, August 31st is a useful feather in the cap of Eskil Vogt, who comes to competition this year with his own directorial debut Blind. It’s the worthy beneficiary of a pronounced distinction from Vogt’s work with Oslo director Joachim Trier, whose aesthetic a less ambitious collaborator might have easily aped. But Vogt has here established himself as a name to watch, if not entirely one to write home about yet; together with the talented cinematographer Thimios Bakatakis, he has made a film that plays with perspective in ways at once amusing and moving, lending his newly-sightless heroine’s story a tragedy that, especially with Ellen Dorrit Peterson’s compelling performance, never fails to snare us. Even so, his script’s a slight mess of comic ambition and grander dramatic gestures, ill-equipped to adapt its meta-fictional conceit to the character depths it strives to plumb. More to be mused over at my full review.
Back to the Shadows Shorts via Spain, thereafter, for Timothy, the kind of oh-my-gosh-did-that-happen outré offering to get audiences gasping. Alas, it’s all a lot of empty provocation, and capably mounted as Marc Martínez’s student effort may be, it eventually amounts to little more than a blood-for-blood’s sake bit with a tacked-on conclusion any horror aficionado will set their eyes a-rollin’ at. Though let’s not be harsh: as a mere ten-minute warm-up act for the feature to follow, Timothy’s an innocuous effort to get the job done; there’s an audacious fun to the idea itself that forgives, to a certain extent, the exploitation of the execution. Martínez, if nothing else, has made a memorable little calling card, and one with a sharpness of eye to ensure we ought to see more from him in the future.
Speak of calling cards: commit the name Shahram Mokri to mind, for if his Fish & Cat is already not the finest film in competition, it’s certainly sure to stay the most innovative. Following in the footsteps of Russian Ark and the handful of other features shot in a single take, this Iranian effort is first and foremost an extraordinary logistical achievement, its interweaving cast of characters and near two and a half hour length ensuring, even if the movie were awful, that it would merit applause. But awful it ain’t, and though the obvious editorial limitations of this fluid shooting style harm the flow of the piece, the manner in which Mokri subverts a century’s worth of cinematic language is a considerable coup. Playing equally on the assumptions we bring to genre and perspective, this is a film that, for all its troubles, ought to be approached as essential viewing for all. There’s much much more to be discussed in my full review.
So closed the second day here in Cluj-Napoca, with the competition kicking into high gear and the launch of Romanian Days right around the corner. My colleagues and I will have considerable coverage of both over the days to come; we can only hope the diversity and distinction encountered thus far will continue to grace us.