Saturday, December 03, 2011

Romanian Film Festival ’11: Adalbert’s Dream

Workplace dynamics are pretty universal, even during the nadir of the Ceaușescu regime. However, everything is shabbier in this Romanian variation on the themes of The Office, with an extra element of intimidation added to make it all grimmer. Yet, a state-owned factory’s slick rule-bender remains irrepressible throughout Gabriel Achim’s Adalbert’s Dream (trailer here), which screens tomorrow as a selection of the Sixth Annual Romanian Film Festival, co-presented by the Romanian Cultural Institute and the Film Society of Lincoln Center.

For once, the factory employees are in good spirits, but it has nothing to do with festivities planned for the 75th anniversary of the Romanian Communist Party. The Steaua Bucharest football team pulled off an unlikely upset victory over mighty Barcelona in the European Cup final late the night before, leading to nationwide euphoria. Comrade Sub-Engineer Iulica Ploscaru videotaped the match to curry favor with his boss—not that ordinary Romanians are supposed to have luxuries like VCRs. Ploscaru though, has a knack for working angles and exploiting grey areas.

The Comrade Sub-Engineer works in the safety department, where his ill-defined duties include producing two cautionary films for the annual assembly. One is a documentary, while the other is an “artistic” film, illustrating the consequences of workplace negligence. His primary subject is Mrs. Comrade Lidia Spataru, a worker on disability whom he is has sort of-kind of been carrying on an affair with. She also stars as the Peter Pan-looking protagonist of his so-called art film, Adalbert’s Dream.

There are all kinds of workplace pettiness going on in Dream, but everyone is afraid of Comrade Tocmagiu, the Party enforcer, most definitely including Ploscaru’s boss, Lafardau. Clearly, office politics were no laughing matter under Communism. Ceaușescu’s workplace safety bureaucracy was also rather Kafkaesque, primarily existing to disallow workmen’s comp, if the periodic excerpts the film shows us from official reports are accurate at all.

Ploscaru is a rather bizarre screen protagonist, nebbish but self-centered, reckless but not rebellious, per se. He is a great comic character (who cannot tell a joke to save his skin), portrayed with sly understatement by Gabriel Spahiu.

In a clever screenplay co-written with noted Romanian author Cosmin Manolache, Achim perfectly captures the uncomfortable atmosphere of forced camaraderie (which any clock-watcher can relate to). He also conveys the dismal drabness so peculiar to the era. Yet, it is the implications of Dream’s events, often subtly implied, that really drive home the pathological dysfunction of the Ceaușescu years.

Though tighter, sharper, and more accessible than most of the films of the so-called Romanian New Wave, Dream’s shaggy aesthetic might take some viewers a bit of time to acclimate to. Yet, in its way, it is highly subversive and ruthlessly cutting. Even the recurring motif of goalie Helmuth Duckadam’s four saved penalty kicks ends on a decidedly ironic note. Unusually smart satire, Dream is definitely recommended when it screens tomorrow (12/4) as part of the 2011 Romanian Film Festival at the Walter Reade Theater.