Yesterday brought a close to the ninth edition of the Transilvania International Film Festival, hosted in the university town of Cluj, Romania. The event has been steadily growing both in size and importance over the past few years with organizers touting 2010 as a record breaking year. During its ten days, bookended by Fatih Akin’s “Soul Kitchen” and Andrei Ujica’s “The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceausescu,” TIFF (as the event is more commonly referred to locally, not to be confused with the elder, esteemed September Canadian event) presented a remarkable 240 films from nearly 50 counties, and its warm staff welcomed nearly 500 Romanian and international guests.
I was invited as a special guest of the festival by the Romanian Cultural Institute, part of an American delegation which also included programmer Scott Foundas (Film Society of Lincoln Center), publicist Susan Norget, programmer and critic Alissa Simon (Palm Springs, Variety), and distributor Daniel Elefante (Kino Lorber Films). Our delegation joined Variety critic Jay Weissberg, noted Romanian critic Alex Leo Serban, Romanian Cultural Institute New York head Corina Suteu, and acclaimed New Romanian Cinema directors Corneliu Porumboiu, Cristi Puiu, and Radu Muntean for a panel entitled “Romanian Film and American Audiences: A Love Story?” intended to dispel the myths some Romanians have about how foreign films are received in the US and how the Oscars work, as well as to address the disparate reactions recent Romanian cinema has engendered at home vs internationally.
Puiu was in attendance at TIFF for the national premiere of his Cannes entry, “Aurora,” while Muntean presented “Tuesday, After Christmas,” also featured at Cannes. The affable Porumboiu, currently working on new projects, made a special appearance just for the panel.
During a discussion of how some films, like Muntean’s “Boogie,” have been marketed in the US to make them more appealing to a broader audience – including changing titles and cutting trailers to focus on different aspects that directors may not agree with – Puiu balked at the idea that he should be trying to convince people not interested in seeing his work to do so – instead, he said, he wanted to present his work to those who wanted to see it. Unsurprisingly, the notoriously travel-phobic Puiu also added that he hated festivals, while the other two directors saw them (and corresponding press) as a necessary vehicle to get their films seen. Ultimately the panel seemed to serve its function, helping Romanian audiences understand New Romanian Cinema’s place within the context of noted foreign arthouse fare, and not necessarily well-known to general audiences.
For its part, TIFF’s lineup, programmed by Artistic Director Mihai Chirilov and his team, largely consisted of similar international arthouse selections, drawing from the best of world class festivals of the past year, and included a special focus on Israeli cinema, such as Samuel Maoz’ “Lebanon,” Yael Hersonski’s “A Film Unfinished,” Haim Tabakman’s “Eyes Wide Open,” and Scandar Copti & Yaron Shani’s “Ajami,” among others. TIFF’s audience filled numerous venues to see this world showcase, and notably consisted of younger people, undoubtedly drawing from the local university population – also evident in the very late nights that followed screenings at festival parties and regular bar hangouts – it wasn’t unusual to leave a still-happening bar “early” and encounter daylight for the walk to one’s hotel.
But while TIFF is able to boast an impressive programming slate of international films, it’s in the festival’s Romanian Days section that I spent most of my film-watching time, catching up on a number of notable new productions, including some featured in Cannes this past May. In addition, I was able to see a retrospective screening of one of the three films of seminal Romanian film and theater director, Liviu Ciulei, 1964’s “Forest of the Hanged.” (In other retrospective programming, I sadly missed screenings of the rare 1931 Spanish-language version of “Dracula,” which would have been fitting given the locale!) Some impressions follow:
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Romanian Days Capsules
Cristi Puiu’s 2005 “The Death of Mister Lazarescu” is widely hailed by many as the birth of the New Romanian Cinema, or at least when the international film community really took notice. Puiu’s follow up, which premiered in Cannes’ Un Certain Regard, is a film that actively challenges the viewer for its nearly three hour running time, but it’s a challenge that is ultimately satisfying. Like in countryman Corneliu Porumboiu’s “Police, Adjective,” the story – concerning the troubled Viorel (played by Puiu), who is followed over the course of a day, killing a number of people – culminates in a police station. The absurd tone of the scene and its characters bring the film to the kind of end which merits a repeat viewing.
“First of All, Felicia”
Razvan Radulescu & Melissa de Raaf’s first film, screening at TIFF in Competition, features the impressive debut of theater actress Ozana Oancea as the titular character, a conflicted mother who is leaving her parents’ after an annual visit to Bucharest from Holland, where she moved to nearly 20 years ago to marry a Dutch man whom she’s since divorced. Brilliantly capturing the mundane – preparing to leave for the airport, petty annoyances with a flakey sister, missing a flight, and losing ones temper with aging, intrusive parents – the script, and actress Oancea, shine. Audiences might find Felicia unlikeable or even annoying at times, but they will relate to the interpersonal complexities of a family.
“Medal of Honor”
When 75-year-old Ion I Ion (legendary Romanian actor Victor Rebengiuc) receives notification that he’s to be awarded a special medal of honor for his actions during WWII, he’s stumped – he can’t remember any major accomplishments. His stone-faced wife (the wonderful Camelia Zorlescu), who has barely spoken to him since their son emigrated to Canada, offers no help, but the letters she kept from him during the war offer some answers – until a bureaucratic error is discovered. Calin Peter Netzer’s film manages to successfully balance humor and humanity in this carefully observed portrait of a man trying to show himself and his family that he still counts for something.
“Tuesday, After Christmas”
Radu Muntean’s film, which premiered in Cannes’ Un Certain Regard, follows Paul, husband of Adriana, father of Mara, and lover of Raluca, his daughter’s dentist. Secretly juggling his affair and his family for the past six months, these two worlds finally collide when Adriana unexpectedly accompanies Paul to Mara’s dental appointment. Forced to act, Paul must make a decision, resulting in an honest, understated, and real exploration of two relationships at different stages. The final scene, set during Christmas with his parents, perfectly captures a palpable sense of impending loss.
“Portrait of the Fighter as a Young Man”
In the first of a reported trilogy, Constantin Popescu’s Berlinale Forum title chronicles the early years of resistance leader Ion Gavrila-Ogoranu, who escaped Communist capture following WWII until 1976. Its nearly three hour running time depicts short episodes over the course of years as Gavrila-Ogoranu’s armed resistance group struggles to survive, find food, clothing and shelter, and avoid arrest, torture and death. As with a number of the other Romanian films featured at TIFF, Popescu’s narrative becomes a careful study of the commonplace moments in his protagonists’ lives – only in this case, the commonplace is constant anxiety and stress, punctuated with often deadly firefight.
Aside from a particularly difficult and violent episode at the very end of the film, Titus Muntean’s 1960s set film is often very funny, calling to mind “The Legend of the Official Visit” episode in Cristian Mungiu’s “Tales from the Golden Age.” Like that humorous episode, the daily routine of a small village is upended by the arrival of an outsider further up in the chain of command – in this case, Tavi, who intends to show the villagers a propaganda film and to test their loyalty in a debate following the screening. Unfortunately, the constant rain causes flooding, damages film reels, and upsets his departure plans. “Caravan” offers a wry, gently subversive portrait of early Romanian Communism – tempered with all-too-believable, harsh reality.
“The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceausescu”
Andrei Ujica’s film, which was an Official Selection of Cannes, screening out of competition, closed this year’s TIFF. Like all of the Romanian Days screenings I attended, “Ceausescu” was packed, with a local audience especially eager to see a film about their former dictator. Provocatively titled, Ujica’s film at times suggests that it maybe should been called “Nicolae Ceasescu’s Home Movies,” consisting as it does entirely of recordings of the controversial figure in leisure activities and at public appearances, with no overt authorial voice aside from editing. Neither narration nor title cards are used to contextualize what’s shown (one imagines Romanians of a certain age will pick up the most, recognizing other political figures who will go over everyone else’s heads) but they aren’t really necessary. What’s on display is often humorous in a knowing way – the audience was uproarious when watching the famously uneducated Ceausescu being given an honorary doctorate in one sequence – the ironic laughter clearly underscored the audience’s uncomfortable familiarity with the subject’s reign of terror. While the film would be stronger if it lost about 20 minutes from its three hour running time, it’s nevertheless a fascinating and at times hypnotic documentary essay with priceless archival footage.
“Forest of the Hanged”
This adaptation of a well-regarded novel by Liviu Rebreanu, and starring Victor Rebengiuc (also starring in “Medal of Honor” and featured in “Tuesday, After Christmas”), was director Liviu Ciulei’s third and last theatrical film. Set during WWI on the Austrian-Hungarian front, a Romanian lieutenant suffers a crisis of conscience after the hanging of a fellow soldier for desertion, leading him to contemplate a radical course of action. Featuring a strikingly fluid camera, impressive cinematography, and a charged performance by Rebengiuc, it’s easy to see why “Forest” had such an influence on Romanian cinema, even if the 154 minute film sometimes tiptoes on the side of melodrama.
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This past Saturday night, TIFF presented its awards, which included a general Competition, FIPRESCI (International Critics prize), Romanian Days (celebrating national cinema), and special awards. The full list of winners follows:
“Mundane History,” directed by Anocha Suwichakornpong (Thailand)
“Medal of Honor,” directed by Calin Peter Netzer (Romania)
Best Performance – Male:
Victor Rebengiuc, “Medal of Honor,” directed by Calin Peter Netzer (Romania)
Best Performance – Female:
Ozana Oancea, “First of All, Felicia,” directed by Razvan Radulescu & Melissa de Raaf (Romania)
“First of All, Felicia,” written by Razvan Radulescu & Melissa de Raaf (Romania)
Magnus Nordehof Jonck, “R,” directed by Tobias Lindholm & Michael Noer (Denmark)
Special Jury Prize:
“Last Conversation,” directed by Noud Heerkens (The Netherlands)
Romanian Days Awards:
Best Feature Film:
“If I Want to Whistle, I Whistle,” directed by Florin Serban
Ozana Oancea, “First of All, Felicia,” directed by Razvan Radulescu & Melissa de Raaf
Best Short Film:
“The Cage,” directed by Adrian Sitaru
“Christmas,” directed by Sebastian Lelio (Chile)
Liviu Ciulei, Director
Lifetime Achievement Award, Romanian Cinema:
Dorina Lazar, Actress
Lifetime Achievement Award, European Cinema:
ABOUT THE WRITER: Basil Tsiokos is a Programming Associate, Documentary Features for Sundance, consults with documentary filmmakers and festivals, and recently co-produced Cameron Yates’ feature documentary “The Canal Street Madam.” Follow him on Twitter @1basil1 and @CanalStMadamDoc.