Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Romanian Film Festival ’11: Digging for Life

Popularly known as “Doina,” the Cemetery at St. Lazar’s in Moldova is one of the largest in Europe, but people are still dying to get in. Now, more than ever, according to the salt-of-the-earth gravediggers employed there. We will have ample opportunity to watch them quietly work in Pavel Cuzuioc’s documentary Digging for Life (trailer here), which screens this Friday as part of the 2011 Romanian Film Festival—and admission is free.

The gravediggers’ work involves physical labor, which is never easy. The ground is hard year round, but usually frozen to boot during winter, while the heat of summer is punishing. They also have to walk to and from the cemetery, uphill both ways. They are not bad people though. They even still get a little choked up when called upon to bury young people, though they take the old-timers in stride by this point. They complain they have been burying considerably more of the former than usual recently.

It sounds like typical work place grousing, but late in the film Cuzuioc reminds viewers of something that suggests there might be something to what the gravediggers say after all. Not to give away the film’s only twist, but as a hint, it involves Moldova’s proximity to Ukraine. Frankly, it is not a huge payoff and the film still putters about the cemetery for sometime afterward. This is definitely one of those oh so observational documentaries. However, for anyone considering opening a cemetery, it is rather instructional.

Though none of the subjects really stand out, their sense of decorum is notable. They might well be hard-living, ribald guys outside of work, but they obviously appreciate the significance of where they are and conduct themselves accordingly. Frankly, in today’s Moldova, they are probably fortunate to have a job, difficult as it may be.

Digging is a modest little film that requires a bit of work from viewers to scratch out some significance. Still, it conveys a vivid sense of the cemetery and its hushed atmosphere. One of several recent Romanian productions for HBO Central Europe, it offers some interesting visuals, but precious little drama, when it screens this Friday (12/2) as part of this year’s Romanian Film Festival at the Walter Reade Theater. Again, the first-come first-served admissions are free, so those so inclined should plan to arrive early.