Adrian’s wife, Eva, appears to be the only woman who doesn’t want to have sex with him. Working as a waiter at a beautiful Italian beach resort, Adrian (Alexandru Potaceanu) is surprised to discover that the air grows thick when he tells his boss that he wants some time off in order to visit his spouse and their son, whom he hasn’t seen in a year. His employer is resentful — burned too many times by migrant workers who have promised to return only to leave her in the lurch — but she also appears to feel rejected. On the long bus back towards Bucharest, there’s an encounter with another passenger, a girl whose overture towards Adrian is so subtle that it makes the gestures in “Carol” seem virtually pornographic by comparison.
When he arrives in Romania, however, he finds that Eva (Ada Condeescu) is cold and distant in a way that’s impossible to miss. She meets him at the bus station wearing a bland denim jacket over a slinky pink night-slip, a warmly familiar house with all the lights off. She’s cheated on him — the confession comes almost instantly. The long night that follows will determine the future of their marriage.
Forever stuck in the second tier of his country’s recent directors, Cătălin Mitulescu (“Loverboy”) makes films that speak to the superficial qualities of the Romanian New Wave, but never quite as fluently as that of his more famous contemporaries. There’s real merit to his work, which shares the same patience and unflinching attention to social ills for which people revere the films of Cristian Mungiu and Radu Muntean. But none of his three features quite know what to do with all that tension, nor what their narrowed vision is supposed to be looking for.
That’s never been more true for Mitulescu than it is with “By the Rails,” which spins a mundane scenario into the stuff of great cinema before slowly letting all of the air out of the balloon, like there’s a leak in the film that its creator was powerless to seal. All of the right ingredients are there: You can feel the faded heat between Adrian and Eva, and Mitulescu milks every drop of the tension that swelters around them.
A two-hander that plays like the negative image of one of Richard Linklater’s “Before” films, the movie is terse and brittle, and its characters don’t say nearly as much as the world around them. As Adrian responds to the bombshell news by acting as though he didn’t hear it, the trains that constantly shuffle and groan along the tracks outside their house begin to form a repetitive greek chorus, asking both members of the couple if they’re coming or going. Mitulescu isn’t as severe a formalist as his more famous countrymen, but he still gravitates towards long takes that stretch his thin drama to the breaking point.
Adrian grins through every strained silence, like he’s looking back on this night from 20 years in the future, mocking his wife for embarrassing herself. Eva says she wants to leave him, but doesn’t sound convinced. It’s hard to know for sure what either of them are thinking, in part because we don’t know who either of them are. Our attention inevitably drifts towards an imagined history as the drama goes slack; what did these two beautiful people look like when they weren’t being so ugly to each other? Why didn’t Adrian come home the first few times he said he would? How long can they possibly go without talking about any of this?
“By the Rails” lightens up with the sun, as Eva and Adrian separately drift towards a madcap wedding ceremony in the center of town that goes past dawn and feels like it fell out of an Emir Kusturica film. At first, as Eva dances in the corner and Adrian saves the day by haggling with the band, crashing the party seems like another diversion in a long night of the soul. And then 10 minutes turns into 20 turns into 30 turns into 40 and more than half of this (surprisingly short) movie is swallowed by a scene in which its main couple barely interact with each other. There’s a brief shot of them drunkenly canoodling, but Mitulescu drops the sound out. Are they commiserating over what they’ve lost, or laughing at the newlyweds for the position in which they’ve just put themselves?
This isn’t the kind of movie that will ever bother disclosing the identity of Eva’s private Romeo, or offering solid answers for any of the other mysteries it creates, and eventually there only seems to be one relevant question worth asking: What does forgiveness look like? It’s not a knock against Mitulescu to suggest that he doesn’t appear to have the slightest idea, but “By the Rails” runs out of steam because — after the promise of its initial set-up — the film doesn’t even feel as though it’s on the right track.
“By the Rails” plays this week at the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.