TIFF Romania: Diary Two

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Structure of Crystal (dir. Krzysztof Zanussi)

Structure of Crystal (dir. Krzysztof Zanussi)

Editor’s Note: 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

The vagaries of festival planning are a thorn in the paw of the dispatcher, who craves a regularity of reportage that just can’t be justified when the stars don’t align. So it is that I take you to the festival’s end in this, merely the second summation of my couple of days in Cluj; would that I’d seen the number of movies to justify a third, but time is precious, and precious little available here.

The eventual winner of the Transylvania Trophy was Stockholm, Rodrigo Sorogoyen’s Before Sunrise-esque offering with a subversive undercurrent as distinctive as it is destructive. Much as the sophomore feature helmer—whose cut teeth in TV manifest in some tremendous blocking and efficiently-orchestrated naturalistic long takes—has an ingenious idea on his hands here, the radical reconsideration of romantic preconceptions is forced in a deceptive direction that amounts, in essence, to entrapment. It’s a monumentally mixed bag and all the more fascinating for it; here telling us to think one way, there leaving us unable to think any other, Sorogoyen attacks the very same gender stereotypes he elicits, not least of all in the facile coda that undoes all good work done to that point. Few could contest the equal award of the jury’s Best Performance prize to co-leads Javier Pereira and Aura Garrido; if Stockholm works at all, it’s on the back of their brilliantly bipartite work. Either way, it’s a movie worthy of much thought: hit the full review for just that.

Before Tonight Is Over (dir. Peter Solan)

Until This Night Is Over (dir. Peter Solan)

Briefly retreating from what’s been so far—in the eyes of this cynical critic at least—a competition slate ill-able to approach the quality of last year’s, t’was to the past I turned next for 1966’s Before Tonight Is Over, a slowly striking social tract recently restored by the Slovak Film Institute, and presented as part of the late Peter Solan’s sidebar in the festival’s 3×3 tribute section. He deserves the attention: this is work of a wit and wisdom to excite even fifty years on, an alcohol-soaked allegory as the guzzling patrons of a faux-classy dive progressively express the state of the nation. It’s only with an appreciation of the historical context or a hefty dose of research, then, that Solan’s so-called magnum opus bears full fruit, but even those largely clueless ought to uncover plenty of worth in the raw humour and barely-masked spite that bubbles between characters.

A brief dip in the pool of home talent next, with Romanian Days entry The Crypt, whose co-production credit for France facilitates the communication barrier on which its conceit is chiefly founded when a Francophone CEO razes a relic on a local property he’s developing and soon finds himself duly trapped behind its one-way gate. If the strained cyclicality of the plot didn’t stretch belief enough, the wild tonal and thematic shifts of second-time director Corneliu Gheorghita surely did: here an evident economic allegory, there a slapstick existential comedy, it’s a film that tries to be many things without much success at all, nailing neither the supernatural ambiguity on which it effectively opens nor the socio-political promise of its plot. A dab hand as director, Gheorghita’s flair lends visual polish to Jean Samoullan’s spare mess of a script, but no amount of nice shots can salvage a turkey so aimless it left the audience lurching, and me with them: more on that over in my full review.

Viktoria (dir. Maya Vitkova)

Viktoria (dir. Maya Vitkova)

More popular, evidently, was the Bulgarian Viktoria, a competition entry that premiered in Sundance and earned a Special Jury Award here; clearly, the panel share’s the conviction of debut director Maya Vitkova that slow-motion shots of actors staring into the distance can double for characters. I don’t, and the afternoon I spent watching the movie felt more like an age: Vitkova’s a visual talent, plainly, working with DP Krum Rodriguez to craft a slew of shots so striking they almost overcome the undercooked political parallels of the script, which pursues a staunchly anti-communist mother and her ironically-iconic child-of-the-decade through the course of the regime’s fall. Wild tonal shifts and stultifying slo-mo excess are the kind of things a sane producer would snip; Vitkova, acting as her own, has denied the film the fresh eyes it needs to meet its potential. A masterpiece of a maternity movie might well be hiding in Viktoria, but oh what a lot of mediocrity it’s hidden amidst. More detailed detractions yonder.

It’s the discomforting fit of its contrived comedy within the dour dramatic framework erstwhile erected that really hurts Viktoria, which could stand to learn a lot from I’m an Old Communist Hag, a beautifully balanced delight that did not, as I predicted in my review, take home the Audience Award—that went to Still Life, a competition entry here about which I raved from Abu Dhabi. That’s a surprise, given the laughter that lingered through three DCP hiccups: the stalled screen was like a breath-catching break for the appreciative audience, as enraptured by the prominent political message as the generous serving of gut-busting scenes. Luminita Gheorghiu rules the roost as the ex-party member reconsidering communism amidst capitalist economic collapse; veteran helmer Stere Gulea expertly integrates prickly material with a levity of tone that’s terrific in effect. A few minor aesthetic quibbles seem almost nit-picking in the company of a crowd like this; here is a home hit for sure.

Less commercially viable, if no great deal less worthy of the attention, was another Romanian Days offering to deal with the past: Poarta Albă, from veteran helmer Nicolae Mărgineanu, delves into the largely forgotten tale of the Danube-Black Sea canal’s construction by labour camp detainees, often imprisoned for no great crime at all. It’s two such men we meet in the film’s opening scene, aiming to flee the country for France only to be snapped up by border control and sent to the camp. Adapted from a pair of biographical books, Mărgineanu’s movie works best when focused on the plight of these two, less so when struggling to match that with the would-be sublime story of a monk whose Bucharest Cathedral painting revealed his hidden history at the camp. Bleakness abounds in the bare look of the film; Mărgineanu’s approach ain’t anything new, but it’s for good reason he’s chosen it. Poarta Albă plumbs the past for profound relevance to the present. Further, fuller thoughts to follow.

Quod Erat Demonstrandum (dir. Andrei Gruzsniczki)

Quod Erat Demonstrandum (dir. Andrei Gruzsniczki)

Staying with both black and white and Romanian Days for the section’s sole competition crossover Quod Erat Demonstrandum, the day’s third film to tackle the communist legacy—what a triple bill!—and inarguably the most distinctive in how. Symmetry and shadow are par for the course in Andrei Gruzsniczki’s aesthetic, which implies both age and oppression with its colour-drained imagery. It’s impressive the drama he mines from the piece, given its central focus on the bureaucratic holdups behind the publication of a mathematical paper; as much to thank is the implied affections of leads Sorin Leoveanu and Ofelia Popii, whose characters’ understated intimacy is the eventual essence of the piece. Just as drab in atmosphere as in aesthetic, Quod Erat Demonstrandum curiously succeeds and suffers for the miserable morbidity of its tone: it’s difficult to describe in the course of just a capsule, best to check the full story for more.

Competition screenings concluded and the Romanian Days efforts reliably covered by my colleagues (read their ongoing work here), I jumped at the chance to seek out more Solan on the festival’s penultimate day, and alas my last. To The Boxer and Death it was, then, a curious combination of the concentration camp and sporting films that finds a rhythm in the latter’s generic beats before hitting below the belt—did I have to go there?—with the harsh realities of the former. It’s an excellent film, no less impactful half a century on: the editorial implications of those sequences where the chief character deduces the source of the smoke filling the sky are as harrowing as anything else seen in these last days in Cluj. Excellent lead performances from Manfred Kraft and Stefan Kvietik as the camp commandant and the escapee he employs for sparring bouts pave the way for Solan’s superb treatment of human (dis)passion; who now could question the Slovak’s right to a sidebar all of his own?

But if Solan started the final day with a bang, it was Krzysztof Zanussi who ensured it, and the fest, didn’t end with a whimper. He had the benefit of being here in person, of course, and oh what a presence he is: the Polish master, whose The Illumination and The Constant Factor were highlights for me in the currently-touring Scorsese-curated series—not to mention a sure influence on the aforesaid Quod Erat Demonstrandum—presented his debut feature Structure of Crystal with a self-deprecation that had the house howling. He needn’t have been so modest, of course: the movie’s magnificent, another academically-oriented examination of the world and our infuriating efforts to understand our place within it, hilariously told via the former colleagues who convene at the weather station where one now ekes out a living to the other’s horror. At the closing ceremony that shortly followed the film, Zanussi accepted TIFF’s lifetime achievement award with a quip about the elderly needing recognition more than anyone else. It’s his film, and those of Solan and Jancsó, that—especially in light of the winners I winced at—evidence this above all. Transylvania has found fortune as a fest to fete the up-and-comers; this year, it’s done well to wed that with the forebears they follow.

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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.