Sunday, December 07, 2014

New Romanian Cinema ’14: I’m an Old Communist Hag

Emilia was allowed to shake Ceauşescu’s hand because she was a Party member, who didn’t have sweaty palms. For a while, that encounter gave her great prestige in her state-run factory, but she tried to avoid discussing it after the revolution. Nonetheless, her nostalgia for the past is rather well known in Stere Gulea’s I’m an Old Communist Hag (trailer here), which screens during Making Waves: New Romanian Cinema 2014.

She was once an industrial foreman, but now Emilia and her husband Ţucu make do on their pensions and a bit of bartering-up. If you ask her, she will tell you the old dictator did a better job managing the economy. At least, that is how she remembers it. However, her memory is selective and she may have only noticed what she wanted to back in the day. She will slowly and only partially come to realize this when she visits Madame Stroescu to have a dress made for her expat daughter Alice’s sudden visit.

Madame Stroescu was always a favorite of Alice’s, but Emilia never realized how much the gentle woman suffered under Communism. She should have been an accomplished artist, but she was forced to work as a seamstress instead. With her eyesight now failing, even such work is beyond her, but she still hopes to have her late father’s confiscated tailor shop restituted to her. It is an inconvenient episode for Emilia to process, especially with the 2010 financial crisis swirling around her. In fact, that is why Alice and her American husband Alan have suddenly arrived. Both have been let go by their multinational employer and now find themselves at loose ends.

Despite its hot-button title, Hag is a restrained film that eschews all ideologies in favor of human relationships. Emilia is not a bad person. She just happened to do somewhat better than her neighbors during the old regime and is now experiencing a bit of a rough patch due to the new more cyclical system. Nevertheless, Valeria Seciu’s haunted Stroescu unambiguously serves as the film’s conscious and moral corrective. It is a quiet but powerful performance that undercuts Emilia’s romanticized memories.

While it is a more restrained and forgiving role than her celebrated turn in Child’s Pose, Luminita Gheorghiu still commands the screen as Emilia, embracing her complications. Ana Ularu counterbalances her well as Alice, the daughter who sees the past era in its full historical context, but struggles with her own personal and professional failings. Texan Collin Blair’s Alan resembles a young Michael Rapaport, which works rather well in context. There are probably a dozen additional supporting players playing former colleagues and family members, who are quite colorful, but feeling unfailingly real. Still, it is Gheorghiu and Seciu who really define the film with their contrasting presences.

Gulea was a rather bold critic of the Communist regime in past films, so Hag should not be dismissed as revisionism, but more of a meditation on how folks get by, regardless of the times. It is a nice film, elevated by several thoughtful performances and a lively yet elegiac score composed by Vasilé Sirli. Recommended for those interested in seeing a different side of Romanian cinema, I’m an Old Communist Hag screens this afternoon (12/7) at the Walter Reade Theater and tomorrow (12/8) in Long Island at the Jacob Burns Film Center, as part of Making Wave: New Romanian Cinema.