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You will write “I will not post graffiti” in Romanian four thousand times on the wall.

(2020) Drama (Big World) Serban Lazarovici, Nicolae Ceausescu, Bogdan Zamfir, Ioana Iacob, Serban Pavlu, Alexandru Porocean, Silvian Vâlcu, Constantin Dogioiu, Doru Catanescu. Directed by Radu Jude

 

These days, the left rails against authoritarianism around the globe and frets that it is coming to the United States. The right often pooh-poohs such notions and, in some cases, embraces authoritarian leaders such as Viktor Orban or Vladimir Putin. But nobody really discusses what life in an authoritarian state looks like, and the consequences of such on individuals who live in them.

Romania in the 1980s under communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu was such a state. In October 1981 in the city of Botosani, chalked statements calling for free trade unions such as the then-nascent Solidarity union that was rising in Poland, and expressing frustration at the scarcity of food and services for the general public began to appear on the walls of the Communist party headquarters and other government buildings around the city.

The Romanian secret police, the Securitate, went to work immediately, mobilizing an army of informants and agents to discover who was behind what they considered terrorist acts. The culprit was caught within a few weeks and turned out to be a 17-year-old high school student named Mugur Calinescu (Lazarovici). The boy was interrogated and eventually released without being jailed, but the consequences against him and his family were appalling.

Jude based the movie on a stage play by Gianina Carbunariu, what she called a “documentary play” (she also co-wrote the screenplay along with Jude). The dialogue was taken directly from the testimony and reports that was recorded by the Securitate around the incident. Actors playing various Securitate agents read their reports against stylized stage-like backgrounds, lit by bright and garish lights, with gigantic television screens, tape recorders and the symbol of the Securitate in the background. Interspersed with the testimony are excerpts from Romanian state television of the period, showing the propaganda that depicted Romania as a happy, prosperous place even though those making the television programs knew it wasn’t so (their fixed smiles betray them) and of course the people watching them knew better as well.

This results in an innovative and interesting narrative, but despite the subject matter, this is not a story of a brave young man standing up so much as it is about how easily those in an authoritarian nation turn on one another. The film continues through the suspicious death of Calinescu just four years later, apparently from leukemia, at the age of 21 (it wasn’t uncommon for the secret police to expose Romanian citizens to lethal radioactive isotopes in order to silence them without appearing to murder them, although it was, of course, the kind of state-sanctioned murder that continues in Putin’s Russia even now). The final act jumps ahead to modern days, where the unrepentant agents of the Securitate insist they worked for the good of the state and that they never harmed anyone.

The film takes an awful long time to get going, although as it continues through the saga the movie gets more and more intense. Jude might have benefitted from a judicious hand in the editing bay, perhaps cutting down on some of the testimony (and accompanying cheesy television clips) and tightened the storytelling just a hair.

What we’re left with is a chilling look at life in an authoritarian state, and the movie does end with a gut punch – monochromatic photos of the real Mugur and the chalk graffiti he left, which look terribly innocent by any standards, but especially given the tragic consequences those chalk writings created.

REASONS TO SEE: A unique method of telling the story. Somewhat surreal, although it may not be quite so much to those who lived in Romania at the time.
REASONS TO AVOID: The pacing is a bit slow for a two-hour movie.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some adult themes.
=TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film debuted at the 2020 Berlin Film Festival, one of two films Jude debuted there that year.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 01/23/22: Rotten Tomatoes: 81% positive reviews; Metacritic: 80/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: V for Vendetta
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
The Laureate

Be My Cat: A Film for Anne


How would you like Sonia to be your cat?

How would you like Sonia to be your cat?

(2015) Horror (Artsploitation) Adrian Tofei, Sonia Teodoriu, Florentina Hariton, Alexandra Stroe, GiEmSi, Donna Tofei. Directed by Adrian Tofei

 

Love and obsession can be two sides of the same coin. What happens when one becomes the other can be frightening indeed, particularly when the obsessive is a psychopath.

Adrian (Tofei) is a budding filmmaker who lives in a small Romanian town, but that doesn’t preclude him from big dreams. He has an idea for a movie and only one actress will do – Anne Hathaway. To a sense, he’s somewhat pragmatic; he realizes that an actress of her stature isn’t going to give the time of day to just anyone. What he decides to do is make a kind of video pitch to her, showing her the film he intends to make with her using other actresses to fill in her role so she can get a sense of the movie he wants to make.

At first, Adrian seems a likable film dork. He lives with his mom (D. Tofei) and has rented out a pension to do his filming in. He has informed all and sundry around the area that he is making a horror film and not to be alarmed at shrieks and loud voices.

It seems pretty cinema verité to the actresses he hires. Sonia (Teodoriu) gets frustrated at Adrian’s barebones direction, telling her to find a solution to what appears to be contradictory directions. Finally, after Adrian stages an abduction scene, the actress isn’t aware that he’s using real chloroform, or that he’s planning a real murder with her as the star.

When the second actress, Flory (Hariton) arrives, Adrian is severely disappointed. For one thing, the actress has gained weight since she took the head shots and video that she submitted. For another thing, she seems more interested in having sex with Adrian than in acting in his film. Adrian is genuinely embarrassed by this and the results for Flory are fairly gruesome.

Finally there’s Alexandra (Stroe), the third actress. By this time, Adrian believes he’s ready for the real Anne Hathaway and that he doesn’t need to murder a third actress to play the part with his beloved Anne. That leaves the question; what to do with Alexandra? She certainly doesn’t want to die for her art.

This is a found footage-style horror film with a budget that is virtually non-existent and was raised by an Indie-Go-Go campaign. Tofei, who was inspired by a one-man stage show he performed as a similar character, does virtually everything from writing and directing to starring to editing to distributing to publicizing to producing and he probably made sandwiches for the cast and crew which was largely just him.

He does a pretty satisfactory job as the obsessed directorial wanna-be. The longer the film goes, the more manic and crazed Adrian becomes until he is clearly around the bend by the final act. There are some maniacal giggles that are a bit over-the-top but Adrian’s lunacy is completely believable, from the repetition of his dialogue to the disarming but sinister grin. That the actresses willingly put themselves in situations in which a monster like Adrian can do his dark deeds is also believable.

Most of the film is shot in Adrian’s actual home and on the street nearby. While the fictional Adrian is agoraphobic and refuses to leave his small town, the real Adrian actually lived in Bucharest and moved back home to make his movie. The first actress got so freaked out that she actually called the police for real; the footage of their arrival made it into the final film. More to the point, the third act is so intense, the second so bloody that the end credit disclaimer “No persons or animals were harmed in the making of this film” actually came as a relief to this reviewer who was beginning to wonder if what it was I was viewing wasn’t a Romanian snuff film. Also pictures of the alive and well actresses at the film’s festival debut were also quite reassuring. That’s impressive, especially for a first-time filmmaker.

The intensity level might be a drawback for some. Adrian is rather cruel to his actresses, calling one fat and another untalented. My understanding is that the actresses were not informed in advance of a lot of the things that happened in the film in order to make their reactions more believable. Each of the actresses are beautiful and talented; each one creates a distinct character – the mousy Sonia, the forward Flory and the quick-witted Alexandra.

This is a refreshing and new take on found footage (and incidentally the first found footage film produced in Romania) which is a headline in and of itself. While the issues that are problematic for that genre (i.e. shaky handheld camera inducing vertigo in the viewer, poor lighting) remain, the performances more than make up for the drawbacks. The last third of the film really held me spellbound and I literally had no idea how it would end. That’s the mark of a great filmmaker.

REASONS TO GO: A strong performance by Tofei and the three actresses as well. The blood-soaked second act and tense third act are worthy of much larger productions.
REASONS TO STAY: At times the low budget is pretty obvious. The handheld camera is on occasion nausea-inducing.
FAMILY VALUES:  Some very intense peril, strong violence and a bit of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  In order to maintain a feeling of realism, Tofei shot nearly all of the footage himself. This also helped with budget constraints.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Vimeo (coming to Amazon Prime in January 2017)
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/6/16: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: My Date with Drew
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Arrival

Police, Adjective (Politist, adjectiv)


Police, Adjective

Apparently Ion Stoica didn't get the direction for everyone to face the window, or he's just a maverick at heart.

(2009) Comedy (IFC) Dragos Bucur, Vlad Ivanov, Irina Saulescu, Ion Stoica, Marian Ghenea, Cosmin Selesi, George Remes, Dan Cogalniceanu, Serban Georgevici, Alexandru Sabadac. Directed by Corneliu Porumboiu

When confronted by conscience, the expression of our actions can sometimes be as important as the actions themselves. It is not only important to do the right thing, it is also important to express why the thing you’re doing is right.

Cristi (Bucur) is a cop in the provincial Romanian city of Vaslui. He has been given orders to keep an eye on a young teenager who smokes hashish with his friends on a daily basis; one of them has snitched on the teen, claiming that he has been supplying them with dope. It is a dreary and boring job as Cristi spends hours just watching the teens smoke.

His wife Anca (Saulescu) is a schoolteacher who is a bit stuffy about grammar and syntax. The two debate the literary interpretation of an inane Romanian pop song one evening after dinner; the wife listens to the song over and over again obsessively while Cristi’s nature is to analyze what the song means, but in a more rational matter; he doesn’t have a lot of room in his world for interpretation.

But apparently this conversation opens his eyes to the idea that he does have room, and he begins to make it when it comes to the teenager. If Cristi arrests him, the boy will be put in jail for a minimum of five years and more likely eight. The boy’s life and future will be utterly ruined. To further complicate matters, Cristi strongly suspects that the law governing this misdemeanor will be changed a few years down the road when Romania joins the European Union. He also believes that the teenager was snitched on so that the informant could make a move on the boy’s girlfriend. There seems to be a great deal of injustice happening in this small, insignificant crime.

When Cristi’s superior officer, Anghelache (Ivanov) pressures him for an arrest, Cristi flat-out refuses to arrest the boy. He simply doesn’t want the ruining of the boy’s life on his conscience. Anghelache, a somewhat fatherly figure, doesn’t hesitate. Out comes the dictionary in a scene that is at once gripping and droll as the two debate the meanings of words like “police” and “conscience.”

I know this all sounds a bit cerebral and maybe even boring but the movie is anything but. This is a fascinating slice of life that masquerades as a police procedural. Here in the States, we think of cop shows mostly as CSI-like, or like “Law and Order,” with brilliant detectives out there catching bad guys in a very black and white milieu.

Here, there isn’t necessarily a bad guy, just a kid who is making a bad life choice. When Cristi’s conscience comes into play the movie elevates into something else completely. Who knew that a scene in which two people essentially debate the meanings of certain words could be so riveting?

Not everyone will agree with me on this. I will grant you that the pace is exceedingly slow, maybe too much for American audiences to really tolerate. Much of the movie is dialogue-free, but when the characters do talk they all have something to say. Even the inanities like the bureaucrats who make excuses why files can’t be delivered to the cop’s desk in a timely manner, or a fellow cop (Stoica) who is offended at not having been invited to his partner’s home for a meal, have a richness to them that fill up the palate of real life, something that Romanian films have been extremely successful at doing over the past decade as their film industry has become one of the finest in the world in terms of consistent quality.

Bucur has a sad sack quality to him and is in many ways the most loosely drawn character of the lot; he is a bit of an everyman who I think is a means of representing the audience in a somewhat absurd situation. Ivanov, who played the sinister abortionist in Four Months, Three Weeks and Two Days is superb as the fatherly but officious police captain who not only wants his officer to enforce the law but to understand why it is important he do so without question. It’s an interesting debate that you want to take part of yourself as you watch, always the sign of a movie that is succeeding in its goals.

WHY RENT THIS: A very interesting look at the other side of police work and the value of conscience in law enforcement. 

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The pace is snail-like to the extreme and impatient audiences who tire of reading subtitles might give up on it quickly.

FAMILY VALUES: There is some depiction of teen drug use as well as a few bad words here and there.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This was Romania’s official submission for the Best Foreign Film Oscar of 2009.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: Not available.

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

TOMORROW: Pirate Radio