Serban Pavlu and Sofia Nicolaescu in "Everybody In Our Family."
A masterwork of black comedy and suspense, director Radu Jude's "Everybody In Our Family" typifies the best qualities of contemporary Romanian cinema. Tense to the point of exhaustion, brilliantly shot to evoke a real time effect, and filled with immersive long takes and naturalistic performances, Jude's third feature (following "The Happiest Girl in the World" and "A Film For Friends") chronicles the dissolution of family bonds with relentless innovation. Even when heartbreakingly honest and sad, it still manages to sustain a heightened sense of hilarity.
In terms of precedents, "Everybody In Our Family" calls to mind Radu Muntean's recent "Tuesday, After Christmas," which brings a similar approach to its portrait of a crumbling marriage. Narratively speaking, "Everybody in Our Family" is an unofficial sequel: With different characters, Jude's story picks up where "Tuesday" left off, following deadbeat dad Marius (Serban Pavlu) as he comes to terms with the recent separation from his wife Otilia (Mihaela Sirbu) and their five-year-old daughter Sofia (Sofia Nicolaescu). Radu establishes that conundrum in clean, linear terms before taking a sharp turn into chaos.
At first, "Everybody In Our Family" simply follows the newly single dentist Markus as he goes about his day--waking up in his messy bachelor pad, speeding down the road on his bike while belting out a Pink Floyd tune, and paying a visit to his parents. His cantankerous father gives Marius a hard time for not taking possession of his kid. "We're dealing with it," Marius whimpers in reply. "That's what modern families do." But even he sounds unsure, and the exchange hints at the desperate measures lurking in the back of his mind.
Radu is in no hurry to get there. "Everybody In Our Family" spends its initial 45 minutes or so simply observing Marius' world before exploding into its main set piece, a prolonged sequence set in the man's cramped former apartment. Explaining too much would spoil it, but it would also fail to evoke realistic manner that Radu makes the conflict emerge from seemingly mundane events. Marius initially arrives to visit Sofia, only to find his wife has left her at home with Otilia's new boyfriend Aurel (Gabriel Spaihu) and the young girl's meek grandmother.
Attempting to wrestle Sofia away for a longer visit, Marius engages in an amusing scuffle with her protective housemates, leading to a heated exchange that slowly nudges "Everybody In Our Family" into a darker place. Radu shifts the mood subtly enough that one can never anticipate the next twist; an hour goes by before his wife arrives home to discover a distraught Marius desperately attempting to save whatever semblance of family bonds he has left, and then things really get nuts.
Once again, Marius' initial exchange with his father informs the taut scenario. "One can't control anything," the older man says. "Everything is chaos." The remaining movie bears out that prophesy in shocking physical terms, as the situation builds to complete disarray. And yet Jude takes a hopeless situation and energizes it with ongoing unpredictability.
The script (co-written by Corina Sabau) makes Jude both difficult to like and oddly heroic at the same time, as he hurls an array of insults at his wife while occasionally making a point about his parental responsibilities amid the ugliness. Each caustic moment is balanced off with sudden levity. "Watch your language," Otilia tells him after he finds another extreme name for her. "I would," he shoots back," but I don't have my glasses on."
In the grand tradition of a classic American romantic comedy, "Everybody In Our Family" pretends to take the form of a tired blue collar melodrama and then launches far beyond it. That subversion of conventions imbues the erratic plot with a transcendent quality. "Stop this soap opera," Marius tells his wife, providing a sly reminder of the way Jude has done exactly that.
Criticwire grade: A+
HOW WILL IT PLAY? Sure to become a festival favorite, "Everybody In Our Family" will likely spend the year gathering acclaim and a midsize distribution deal to bring it into limited theatrical release, where good reviews should help it do solid arthouse business.