Tuesday, November 19, 2019

The Romanians: The Way I Spent the End of the World

Lalalilu “Lali” Matei is only seven years-old, but he still figures out Ceausescu is an evil dictator and his socialist system is corrupt. Obviously, he is not a millennial. Despite the steady propaganda diet he receives at school, the young boy recognizes how much trouble the regime causes for his beloved older sister Eva. However, the year is 1989, so if they can just hold on long enough, life will eventually change (for the better) in Catalin Mitulescu’s The Way I Spent the End of the World (executive-produced by non-Romanians, Martin Scorsese and Wim Wenders), which screens as part of Film Forum’s current retrospective, The Romanians: 30 Years of Cinema Revolution.

After December 1989, breaking busts of Ceausescu would become a form of national therapy, but it could lead to no end of woe earlier in the year. Unfortunately, Eva and her boyfriend Alex accidentally do exactly that while sneaking off for a bit of necking during class. Vomica is protected by his father, a Party member-police officer, but that leaves Matei to take the fall. Much to Vomica’s surprise (and only his surprise), Matei dumps him soon after. He wants to pick up where they left off, but she will not forgive and forget the way he turned his back on her.

Of course, carrying on the relationship would be problematic after Matei is expelled from the Communist Youth academy. She must now attend the technical school, but there she meets Christian Vararu, the brooding son of a disgraced political prisoner. Meanwhile, little Lali picks up on all her stress, so he tries to organize his bratty friends into a gang that will take direct action against Ceausescu.

Admittedly, Lali and his pals can be a bit too cute, but there is something genuinely touching about his stormy but affectionate relationship with Eva. Even though the narrative is largely told through his eyes, there is no question Dorotheea Petre is the breakout star of TWISTEOTW. She develops richly complex chemistry with all her principle co-stars, whether it be young Lali, privileged Vomica, or morose Vararu (all of whom are less mature than her). She is a teenaged character, but she must deal with some very adult issues, as well as the usual stuff for a 17-year-old.

Petre commands the screen and Timotei Duma all too convincingly rules the roost as Lali, but as Vomica, Ionut Becheru is acutely tragic and sadly human, in surprising ways. Their relationship is thornily complicated, but we can believe every second of it.

We can also totally believe the way Mitulescu portrays the simmering hatred for Ceausescu among average Romanians that was barely contained by the fear of his internal apparatus of terror—until it wasn’t. In one unforgettable scene, Matei’s father performs a wickedly droll impersonation of the soon-to-fall dictator. He gives viewers a keen sense of the vibe and attitudes that permeated a very definite time and place. Very highly recommended, The Way I Spent the End of the World screens tomorrow (11/20), as part of the Romanians retrospective at Film Forum.