TIFF Romania: Bondoc Review

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Bondoc (2015)

Cast: Dan Vladimir Bondoc
Directors: Mihai Mincan, Cristian Delcea, Mihai Voinea
Country: Romania
Genre: Documentary | Biography | Comedy | Drama

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.

We would hardly need to think twice about taking to task a narrative film which conceives a compelling character only to craft it unconvincingly. Yet in the realm of documentary, there emerges that peculiar brand of film whose central figure is commanding enough in its own right to overcome the limitations of the means of representation. Perhaps it’s the sense of real-world emotion: a poorly-conveyed character feels not a thing beyond the credits’ end; a documentary subject, meanwhile, goes on suffering to the grave. So it goes with Bondoc, a fleeting and flimsy piece from the directorial trio of Mihai Mincan, Cristian Delcea, and Mihai Voinea that hinges—for all its drawbacks—on the profound sense of sadness shared with its eponymous subject.

…a fleeting and flimsy piece from the directorial trio of Mihai Mincan, Cristian Delcea, and Mihai Voinea that hinges…on the profound sense of sadness shared with its eponymous subject.

He, Dan Bondoc, is the septuagenarian chess player we first encounter weeping at the grave of the friend in whose name Romania’s premiere tournament is held; it’s small wonder, given that Grandmaster’s collapse in the midst of a match, that Bondoc should seem to look on the game as a matter of life and death. The debut directorial trio—only Delcea can lay claim to a prior credit, a short segment in an anthology—primarily allow his perspective to lead the way, affording untrimmed screen time to his myriad reminiscences and tearful tales of years gone by. It’s at once the source of the film’s strengths and the gateway to its most lamentable longueurs, giving Bondoc an unrestrained emotional intensity when it—and he—isn’t harping on haphazardly.

This gives the movie an often-uncomfortable sense of emotional exploitation, harsh a term as that might seem: allowing their subject to descend into desperately sad states and happily rolling on, the directors’ only real success is in making the man cry as he tries feebly to find some sense of control in life by way of the board. Still, there’s a clear sense that this would be the case cameras or no: Bondoc’s no sap, for all his tears, and the endearing sense of earned elderly entitlement he shows—one minute railing against youth, the next unleashing a torrent of post-defeat abuse that must rank him as one of the cinema’s best worst losers—makes of him a protagonist strong enough to carry the film beyond its efforts to use him.

That latter scene, where the outraged Bondoc verbally abuses his opponent after bemusedly wondering why he can’t win from the current position, is one of those wonderful moments of mixed mania and melancholy that make him, and through him the film, a transfixing presence to behold. “How can I not win this?” he pleads, and it’s clear from the way he wanders off irate that the match itself is less the subject of the puzzlement than life itself. The great irony of the piece, of course, is in the reality the elder never sees: these young players who share his encyclopaedic knowledge of gambits and defences are exactly the talents this tournament—which Bondoc himself established in the ‘80s—seeks to shine a light upon in honour of its fallen namesake.

Bondoc’s no sap, for all his tears, and the endearing sense of earned elderly entitlement he shows…makes of him a protagonist strong enough to carry the film beyond its efforts to use him.

That Bondoc relies on the viewer to make these inferences from the virile presence at its heart is an issue that can’t entirely be forgiven. Still, they’re there to be made, and for all the first-time issues that plague the production in its fickle following of its protagonist wherever he may roam, Mincan, Delcea, and Voinea have at least had the insight to see a solid story and set about trying to give it voice. If documentary is to cinema what journalism is to literature, as has often been argued, then it’s true the factual film which foregoes craft for the sake of a story does so at its peril; but there’s a nobility all the same, and one to which Bondoc may lay claim, in pointing toward a story that carries on long after we leave it.

5.5 Mediocre

That Bondoc relies on the viewer to make these inferences from the virile presence at its heart is an issue that can’t entirely be forgiven. Still, they’re there to be made, and for all the first-time issues that plague the production in its fickle following of its protagonist wherever he may roam, Mincan, Delcea, and Voinea have at least had the insight to see a solid story and set about trying to give it voice.

  • 5.5
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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.