Sunday, November 27, 2011

Romanian Film Festival ’11: Silent River & Strung Love (shorts)

The Ceaușescu years were not kind to those with an independent spirit or a competitive urge. Even the experience of victory was fraught with irony, but Gregor Totock would not know. However, the swimmer will have a rematch with his old nemesis, the Danube River, in Anca Miruna Lăzărescu’s Silent River (trailer here), the clear standout of the shorts program at this year’s Romanian Film Festival, presented by the Film Society of Lincoln Center in conjunction with the Romanian Cultural Institute.

Years ago, Totock tried to swim to the relative safety of Yugoslavia, via the Danube. It turned out badly for him—and even worse for his female companion. Several years later, the “rehabilitated” Totock is ready to take another shot at the river. Vali, a telephone authority employee, has clearance to be in the border zone, while he has contacts in Serbia who can smuggle them to Germany. Totock only reluctantly accepts the other man as a partner, adamantly refusing whenever Vali speaks of bringing his wife with them. Of course, Totock’s distrust of his companion is partly validated, greatly complicating their escape attempt.

Watching Silent will make viewers feel damp and chilly. It is grim and naturalistic, yet undeniably tense and even stylish. It vividly conveys the omnipresent fear of the Communist years that could not be called paranoia, because it was firmly rooted in reality. Toma Cuzin is a genuinely intense, gaunt looking screen presence, suggesting the power of a coiled spring ready to erupt. Established Romanian actor Andi Vasluianu also makes quite an impression, playing Vali with convincing nervous energy, without ever becoming ticky or mannered.

In marked contrast to Silent’s grittiness (the real socialist realism), Victor Dragomir’s Strung Love takes a gentler, more nostalgic look back at the supposed “Golden Age.” Viorel Petre is a smart, sensitive underachiever at his industrial high school, recruited by the principal, Comrade Badea, to defeat the school bully in a rivet making contest, and hopefully win over his crush in the process.

Much gentler in its satire, Strung seems to have a perverse fondness for the time when rivets were exalted in classrooms for playing a key role in the state’s industrial plan. Still, the political struggle between the principal and the metal-working teacher clearly depicts the pettier tendencies of Communist-era bureaucracy. Strangely stylized, Strung’s cast deliberately (one assumes) looks far too old for high school, but they scrupulously stay in character and never wink at the audience. Indeed, its goofy, light-hearted spirit is rather enjoyable, even if it largely dresses up the experience of living under the Ceaușescus.

This year’s Romanian short film program is unusually strong, also featuring Ioana Uricaru’s notable Stopover, a sly, subtler take on the basic premise of Spielberg’s The Terminal, written by Cristian Mungiu of 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days renown. However it is more of vignette. Silent is a fully conceived and realized film. One of the nominees for best short film at the 2011 European Film Awards, it is a work of a very high caliber, whereas Strung is just a lot of fun. All three screen together as part of the shorts program at the 2011 Romanian Film Festival at the Munro Film Center Amphitheatre this Friday and Saturday (12/2 & 12/3)—and take note: admission is free.