Saturday, April 21, 2012

Disappearing Act IV: Medal of Honor

In recent years, probably no national cinema has immortalized it bureaucracy more than that in Romania.  To say filmmakers have been inspired by their red tape and apparatchiks would be misleading, but they certainly recognize them as a source of acute drama.  Such is the case for an elderly pensioner in Calin Peter Netzer’s Medal of Honor (trailer here), the closing film of Disappearing Act IV, the other film festival now underway in New York, which happens to be free.

Ion I. Ion has a distinctive name, but not distinctive enough.  Out of the blue, he is awarded a high state honor for his rather undistinguished military service.  After accepting the medal, he sends an inquiry to the ministry, asking why it was bestowed on him.  In the following days, his stature in the neighborhood rises significantly.  After the official ceremony (featuring former President Ion Iliescu playing himself in the 1990’s), I.I. Ion starts to believe he really is a war hero.  Then he gets his reply from the ministry: his medal was intended for Ion J. Ion.

In some ways, Medal is an appropriate companion film to Corneliu Porumboui’s Police,Adjective (which also screened during this year’s Disappearing Act), but history weighs more heavily over Netzer’s tale of bureaucrat bungling.  For obvious starters, Romania’s record during WWII could be uncharitably described as opportunistic, a fact I.I. Ion indirectly concedes when relating his dubious war stories to some street kids on the block. 

However, the Socialist era continues to have a more corrosive effect on the Ion family.  I.I. Ion and his son Cornel have not spoken since 1988.  As his father sees it, he merely sought the assistance of the militia to discourage his son from immigrating to Canada.  The son considered it informing, as does his mother Nina, who has cold-shouldered I.I. Ion ever since.

While not exactly a breakneck thrill ride, Medal is far more accessible than some of the recent audience endurance tests produced by the Romanian New Wave.  Still, it is a very subtle film that implies more than it states outright down the stretch.  In real life, Iliescu is a complicated figure, whose ultimate place in history remains highly debatable, but at least he is a great sport playing himself.  Of course, as I.I. Ion, Victor Rebengiuc is the workhorse of the picture, convincingly insecure and neurotically verbose.  Viewers cannot help feeling simultaneous sympathy and contempt for him.
Frankly, a little less of I.I. Ion’s constant pressure of speech would not have sabotaged the filmm and poor long-suffering Nina Ion is little more than a matronly caricature.  Still, it is an intriguing drama, particularly given its post-Ceauşescu context—and especially for free.  Those shut out of the other festival’s screenings should definitely keep Medal of Honor in mind tomorrow night (4/22) when it concludes Disappearing Act IV at Bohemia National Hall.