Saturday, December 05, 2015

Making Waves ’15: Why Me?

According to the postscript, during the years of 2006-2012, “23 members of parliament, 15 government ministers, and over 100 mayors and 50 magistrates” were sent up the river in Romania, which constitutes remarkably clean governance here in New York and New Jersey. However, the underlying system of corruption deeply troubled former prosecutor Cristian Panait. That would be the late Cristian Panait. The controversies surrounding Panait’s untimely demise are transparently fictionalized in Tudor Giurgiu’s Why Me? (trailer here), which screens during the 2015 edition of Making Waves: New Romanian Cinema.

Initially, Cristian Panduru is the fast-tracked golden boy in the state prosecutors’ office, specializing in government corruption cases. He already has plenty to keep him busy, but the prosecution of Bogdan Leca, a notoriously crooked prosecutor from a neighboring jurisdiction could decisively make Panduru’s reputation. Unfortunately, when Panduru tries to execute a search warrant, the crafty Leca runs circles around him. Nevertheless, Panduru’s superiors still file charges against Leca, despite his inability to turn up anything incriminating. Panduru quickly realizes the fix is in and he will be the designated fall guy, if needed.

Under pressure to convict Leca, Panait secretly shifts the focus of his investigation. Before long, he suspects the shadowy involvement of Romania’s SRI, the post-Revolutionary incarnation of the dreaded Securitate, one of seven government intelligence service then active in the country. The more he sleuths out, the greater the pressure Panduru’s superiors exert trying to bring him back in line. It will get ugly.

By the standards of the Romanian New Wave aesthetic movement, Why Me is a barn burner of a thriller. However, viewers who do not have a few recent Romanian films under their belt will need time to acclimate to its severely icy vibe. Still, there is no missing its rampant (but apparently justified) paranoia. Rather pleasantly surprisingly, Why Me is way more closely akin to cynical 1970s conspiracy thrillers like The Conversation than anyone who has soldiered through films like Aurora and The Death of Mr. Lazarescu will ever dare to hope.

In all honesty, Emilian Oprea’s Panduru is so tightly wound and uptight, it practically hurts to watch him walk. It is a quiet, but bitterly compelling performance that takes on legitimately tragic dimensions. As his direct superior, Prosecutor Codrea, Mihai Constantin truly personifies bureaucratic villainy. Alin Florea adds plenty of acerbic élan as the more-formidable-than-he-looks Leca. On the other hand, Panduru’s girlfriend and dodgy colleagues are mostly unremarkable stock characters.

Why Me gives viewers a comprehensive sense of how tricky post-Communist politics, economics, and jurisprudence have been in Romania, in large measure thanks to the Securitate veterans who just carried on as usual in the SRI. Giurgiu never dumbs it down, as he methodically peels back layer after layer of the corrupt onion. It is a challenging film that might be a tad longer than necessary (131 minutes, really?), but maintains a moody, trust-no-one vibe throughout. Recommended for those who appreciate rigorous fact-based political thrillers, Why Me? screens tonight (12/5) and Monday afternoon (12/7) at the Walter Reade, as part of this year’s Making Waves: New Romanian Cinema.