Monday, November 28, 2011

Romanian Film Festival ’11: Danube Waves

Given Romania’s shifting positions during WWII, it was a bit tricky setting a Communist-era propaganda film during that time, but the recently deceased Liviu Ciulei managed to do just that. For his second feature, the renowned theater director combined Casablanca with Wages of Fear, adding a pinch of Party propaganda for seasoning. A ripping tale of war and intrigue, Ciulei’s Danube Waves screens as part of the sidebar tribute to the filmmaker at the 2011 Romanian Film Festival, presented by the Film Society of Lincoln Center and the Romanian Cultural Institute.

Mihai is barge captain who does not trouble himself over politics. Nor is he much concerned about the poor substitutes for sailors he forces to sweep for mines. He just wants to get home to his young wife Ana. Though expendable crewmen are getting harder to recruit, the Germans are willing to provide a prisoner for his use. He chooses Toma, because the supposed criminal is certainly able-bodied and claims to have served on a ship before.

However, Ana can tell right away Toma does not know port from starboard, but he is a quick enough study to fool Mihai. Suspecting he is more than a common thief, a conspicuous sexual tension develops between Toma and Ana that Mihai deals with through heavy drinking as the barge loaded with German arms approaches a known minefield.

Of course, Toma is an agent of the Communist partisans, which gives the film an opportunity to periodically remind viewers just how deeply the Party loves us and how much it has sacrificed for Romania. Though hard to miss, these messages easily could have been more didactic.

The rest of the film is quite tightly executed. There are some real white-knuckle moments as the barge negotiates the bobbing mines and the dialogue (per the translated subtitles) is surprisingly sharp and even snippy at times. In a powerful performance, director Ciulei’s Mihai is an intense salt-of-the-earth screen presence, like Rick Blaine by way of Stanley Kowalski. In her film debut, Irina Petrescu nicely balances the intelligence, naivety, and sexuality of Ana. Though a bit stiff, Lazar Vrabie has a craggy Robert Stack quality that works rather well for Toma. After all, Communist heroes are supposed to be rigid and unyielding.

Danube is such a good film noir, even the state film authorities could not undermine it. Grigore Ionescu’s black-and-white cinematography is appropriately cool and moody, while the love triangle frankly gets kind of hot. As a bonus, there is even a rendition of "The Internationale." Highly recommended for old fashioned movie lovers who can parse the occasional propaganda salvo, Danube screens this Friday (11/2) as part of the 2011 Romanian Film Festival at the Walter Reade Theater, with a special introduction from Petrescu.