According to this depiction of the dark, waning days of Ceausescu’s regime, a sort of double-negative principle applied in Romanian. The system was insane, so those who were mad were actually sane. This would describe Nela and Mitica to a “T.” They both have a knack for speaking embarrassing truths and making people around them feel awkward. It is hard to hide behind lies nobody believes when they are around in Lucian Pintilie’s classic The Oak, which screens during Film Forum’s new retrospective, The Romanians: 30 Years of Cinema Revolution.
As the film opens, Nela is not dealing well with the death of her beloved father, a member of the secret police with a rather questionable record as a member of the WWII underground. She has been operating in a state of denial, while his days-old body molders in her bed. She even sets fire to the flat to chase off her estranged sister.
Eventually, she will have to move along, but she carries his ashes in a coffee can (that’s a family tradition for some of us). Her father wanted to donate his body to science, but Romania in the lack 1980s had a paucity of refrigeration and a surplus of corpses. Sort of starting over, she relocates to a provincial city, where she is roughed up by a gang of laborer on her first day. Fortunately, the brawling doctor Mitica saves her from the worst of it. She rather digs his two-fisted approach to bureaucracy, his commitment to medicine, and his rude sense of humor. A day or two later, they start acting like a couple, even though neither is really the affectionate sort. Nevertheless, they will stand side-by-side and face some pretty ugly harassment together.
The Oak is definitely an anarchic film, but its free-wheeling style will not trouble viewers who have drunk deeply from the wells of auteurs like Buñuel and Fellini. This is the sort of work that requires a bit of time to settle in. Initially, the shabbiness of the environment and Nela’s ragingly self-destructive behavior seem to work in concert to repel viewers, but she and Mitica evolve into grandly tragic heroes over the time.
Maia Morgenstern and Razvan Vasilescu are terrific as the unmoored but perfectly matched pair. They play off each other well (even for those of us relying on subtitles), while developing some effectively ambiguous chemistry. They run about and act out, but their quiet moments together really reverberate. On the other hand, the supporting cast, a colorful rogue’s gallery worthy of Daumier caricatures, provides no end of noise and chaos.
The Oak is a defiantly bold, chaotically head-spinning indictment of Ceausescu Socialism, but it is also deeply compelling cinema. This is definitely auteurist cinema from Pintilie that still connects on a profoundly human level. Nela and Mitiscu are not simply archetypes—they are very definitely their own characters. Along the way, Pintilie calls out the things that defined Ceausescu’s “Golden Age:” material scarcity, rampant corruption, and overt anti-Semitism.
Somehow, the film even manages to allow for the possibility of hope, which is quite the subtle twist. Very highly recommended, The Oak screens today (11/15) and tomorrow (11/16), as part of the Romanians series, now underway at Film Forum.