The real stars of “Acasa, My Home,” an immersive look at life in Romania at the border between wilderness and bustling Bucharest, are cinematographers Radu Ciorniciuc and Mircea Topoleanu. Ciorniciuc is also the film’s director, and together they appear to have created such an easy rapport with the land-dwelling family of their focus that they’re able to exist as invisible spectators. And the subjects of the film — a family displaced out of unclaimed land and into city life — display no resistance to being watched. Gica Enache, his wife, Niculina, and their nine children bob and weave around the camera as if it weren’t there, which makes for an unvarnished vérité portrait of lives on the margins, pushed up against the impenetrable glass of a civilized world way out of reach, but suddenly their new reality.
The familiarity between the Enache family, who lived for two decades in the Bucharest Delta, and the filmmakers who found them is easy to believe: they spent three years together, charting course from a rural life to a more rigid one in the metropolis. The Enaches once eked out a pastoral life in a remote area away from the city, foraging the land, with hardly any brush against modernity aside from the trips into the city to sell fish, and occasional rings from Gica’s cell phone, usually of a foreboding nature.
Which is why, when Romanian officials declare the zone a public park and social services force them into public housing, it’s an out-of-body shock. Gica and Niculina won’t go fighting. “I’ll rip his eyes out,” Niculina says. “If I get my hands in a crowbar, they’d better run.” But they’re ultimately powerless to being swept out of the countryside, and into a tenement in Bucharest, nine kids and all, as their erstwhile home becomes a nature sanctuary for the civilized public to gawk at and trample on.
In “Acasa, My Home,” director Ciorniciuc patiently observes his subjects without interference, which allows for tender human moments to shine through, whether one of the boys marveling at the mechanics of a washing machine, or the kids passing around a ball on a basketball court. Cironiciuc is literal in his approach to making the film’s half spent in the languishing wilderness handheld, while the urban Bucharest-set moments are typically filmed on a tripod or with some stationary element. On paper, it sounds on the nose, but it actually works to bring you deeper into the emotional interiors of the subjects.
What’s sacrificed by Cironiciuc’s fly-on-the-wall process is real character building. It’s hard to distinguish or even identify the children, as none is allowed to shine forth much of a personality, save for the elder boys. But idiosyncratic moments break up occasionally sodden stretches of vérité, like one of the Enache boys gnawing on a baby doll’s head in a jutting flash left unexplained. A shot of Gica in his new apartment home, surrounded by trash bags and a flat-screen TV, suggests how uneasily they’ve adjusted to life in the big city.
There’s a harrowing encounter with local police when the kids try to return to their now privatized former homestead to poach fish — which was their habit in the golden days of living off the land. When one of the cops strikes them down, it’s a crushing moment of brutality. “Someone call the police,” someone says. “But we are the police,” an officer says. There are also, earlier in the film, unsparing moments of animal cruelty. While such sequences aren’t for animal cruelty’s sake, a swine being tethered down for slaughter by a mass of children doesn’t make for easy viewing — even if it’s as a means to survival.
The rise of Romanian-grown documentaries crossing over to the U.S. paints a dispossessed and often fragmented world, where division bifurcates every aspect of society — including the nightmare of bureaucratic failure seen in last year’s “Collective.” Ciorniciuc, a former reporter by trade, is committed to capturing the ugliness and all of living on the fringes in Romania, and the red tape that prohibits a smooth transition out of it, by volition or otherwise.
While the meandering sensibility of “Acasa, My Home” makes it a tough sit at times, the spell it casts through its all-access dive into subterranean life brought to the surface forms a compelling addition to one of international cinema’s deepest, and ever-growing, pockets.
“Acasa, My Home” opens in select theaters and on virtual cinemas via Kino Marquee on Friday, January 15.