Poarta Albă (2014)
Editor’s Notes: The following review 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.
It’s the great pleasure of the festival experience to see the unfiltered idealism of movies that may never make it beyond the circuit hand-in-hand with the ironclad assurance of yesteryear’s classics. And just as Structure of Crystal offered an old-school corrective to the (minor) misgivings of Quod Erat Demonstrandum, so too was prison camp drama Poarta Albă showed up by the similar and superior The Boxer and Death. The point, of course, isn’t to diminish the worth of contemporary efforts—it’s few new films can compete with established greats—but rather to regard them in light of the heights they strive for. Though Poarta Albă strives in vain, there’s much of merit in the manner it does so.
Its many fades to black are as an editorial admission that none of this really fits together terribly well at all: co-writing with Oana Cajal, Margineanu has scripted several movies in one here…
It is, in essence, a hagiography, the back-door biopic of a monk whose curiously-costumed Christ in a Bucharest church painting betrays a storied past, and offers writer/director Nicolae Margineanu one of three sources of key inspiration. The others are biographical books recalling the horrors of the eponymous labour camp, which we join in 1949 as its inmates work to construct the Black Sea-Danube canal that would eventually come to open in Ceaușescu’s time. If the strands sound disparate, it’s for good reason: cutting from a text-heavy exposé of that icon’s hidden details to a scene in which two exiling young men are caught at the border, Margineanu’s movie opens with the same sprawling storytelling approach on which it means to continue.
Its many fades to black are as an editorial admission that none of this really fits together terribly well at all: co-writing with Oana Cajal, Margineanu has scripted several movies in one here, merging the monk’s bland biopic fare with a prison camp plot that—for all its distinction as a rare portrait of this part of Romanian history—might easily have been set in the kind of camps much more common on screen. It’s less Margineanu’s fault than humanity’s as a whole, then, that it all feels so familiar, yet undeniably it does: “wiping clean the stain of misdeeds past” is what the prisoners are made to call the work as they march, and while Margineanu’s aim is much the same, alas he also echoes their efficiency.
As Poarta Albă concludes on a sequence that strives for the sublime with no surplus of success, it almost adds to the appreciation you feel for it.
That’s to say the work is haggard, if not entirely inefficient: like the camp for which it’s named, Poarta Albă does, eventually, get there in the end. It would take a callous sort indeed not to pity the plight of the youths, given the soulful performances of newcomer co-leads Cristian Bota and Sergiu Bucur, who subtly supply the emotional scale that Margineanu’s operatic excerpts overzealously attempt. His cast has a collective repartee for which comedy, however heavy, seems natural: there’s a Stalag 17-esque sense of in-this-together amusement that pardons more ponderously pessimistic stretches of the film; even if the mood—make no mistake—is bleak, these cramped confines hide a comic camaraderie that’s a welcome structural support.
As Poarta Albă concludes on a sequence that strives for the sublime with no surplus of success, it almost adds to the appreciation you feel for it. Neither with the uncontained sprawl of his story nor the mundane monochrome of his imagery has Margineanu endeared his film to us especially, but there is yet an admirably earnest streak to the sense of exposing the ugly past and facing, hopefully, a prettier future. In trying so hard to say so much, the film succeeds at least in showing what terrible truths there are yet to be told. This is not the movie to do these souls justice, but it’s hard to imagine them begrudging it the effort.
In trying so hard to say so much, Poarta Albă succeeds at least in showing what terrible truths there are yet to be told.