The 341 minutes of Romanian Short films in competition this year were as ever a rewarding watch, the usual mixed bunch, but with one clear winner. THE CHRISTMAS GIFT (Cadoul de Craciun) by Bogdan Mureşanu was a near-perfect, genuinely funny yet deeply affecting tale very reminiscent in mood of the best of the ‘Romanian New Wave’ of several years ago. It’s the evening of 20 December 1989, a date that will be very meaningful to Romanian audiences as the day before the fall of Nicolae Ceauşescu, and a father and his little son are returning home to their flat with their Christmas tree. The family are hunkering down for an austere but pleasant run up to Christmas, until the boy reveals what he’s put on the Christmas wish-list he just posted off. And it’s not exactly Ceauşescu-friendly. Panic. The strength of the film – as well as the lovely humanistic feel of ordinary life it gives – is the tension between our knowledge of what tomorrow will bring, and the father’s genuine terror at what might happen to him. His imaginings may now seem absurd, and we can laugh, but such absurdity was a fact of life in 1989. The film ends, as it began, with a Christmas tree, but this one celebrating more than just Christmas. This is a director with tremendous promise.
Among other excellent films was SUNDAY (Dorian Boguța), set in a care home run by frazzled workers where a few moments of tenderness are a catalyst for passion of a very different kind. The fine actress Ioana Flora appears in both this and the previous film. It received a special mention from the judges, along with MICHELANGELO, a sometimes comical but always delicate look at a parent’s coming to grips with telling their child about death (and thereby dealing with their own feelings about it), the directorial debut from actor Anghel Damian. And another actor making a similar debut with aplomb is Maria Popistaşu, whose SEAGULL also takes a sideways look at dealing with death as a daughter (played by the director) and her ageing father cope with an injured bird which has crashed in their garden. Meanwhile brooding tension was finely captured both by Andrei Crețulescu in PARABELLUM, with an ex-husband revisiting his former wife in her new home, that despite first appearances is never going to end well, and in Radu Potcoava’s increasingly menacing MISS SUEÑO where naïve Roxana awaits a trip to start a new life in Spain in the flat of the charming couple who have arranged it for her. And EVERYTHING IS FAR AWAY is a moving, superbly concentrated 15 minutes of a surprise birthday visit from a mother (Mirela Gorea) from the Danube Delta to her son in Bucharest, taking her disabled son along with her, that succeeds in expressing more of social anxieties, small kindnesses and the hurt of motherly love than a full length film might strive to do.
Two more Romanian films on my last full day: ONE STEP BEHIND THE SERAPHIM (Un pas in urma serafimilor) by Daniel Sandu is an engrossing coming of age story set in an orthodox seminary, where we see the young and idealistic Gabriel (Stefan Iancu) dealing with his own emergence into adulthood and coming up against the corruption of the real world. Sandu knows of what he speaks – he spent years in a seminary himself. Charismatic head of the seminary Father Ivan is the wonderful Vlad Ivanov, with that uncanny knack of his of turning on a sixpence from charm to icy malice. Ivan is expert at winning confidence, which he uses for his own ends, encouraging the young men to ‘snitch’ on one another, delighting in his power games. That schoolboy word covers real moral outrage, and it’s not hard to see the seminary as a metaphor for the society both specifically of the time, and in general. Gabriel is also discovering sex, and ditching his glasses and ruffling up his hair he’s soon down the local bar and into his surprisingly forward girlfriend’s bed. In contrast is the simple life of a village priest whom Gabriel visits in a vacation placement, a glance at a pure and holy life, but is this what he really wants for himself? Although the film gets a bit bogged down with too much of the same in the middle sections and, to the hard-bitten cineaste at least, the Zero de Conduite-borrowed pillow fight as symbol of innocence doesn’t quite work, it’s an entertaining film impressively acted. It’s message is less revolutionary than many such ‘school’ films – If springs to mind. Once purged, the school will continue, many of the boys, including, probably, Gabriel, will go on to become priests. It has a less radical message – that life is complicated, perhaps, that right does sometimes come out on top, and that there is hope and a future for the church if it moves with the times and is true to its own messages.
THE SECRET OF HAPPINESS (Secretul fericirii) by Vlad Zamfirescu, with its single scene setting, real-time action and three-hander cast, may look like a screen version of a play, reminiscent of Polanski’s Carnage. But this is not to belittle it, and quite the opposite is true, a successful stage version having been devised soon after the film. It is very much an actors’ film, the three performances always under the spotlight, feelings and motives constantly evolving. But the increasingly claustrophobic feel of the affluent flat where Tom (director Zamfirescu) and Ana his wife (Irina Felcescu) have invited old friend David (Theo Marton) for dinner owes much to the camera’s framing of their conventional-seeming smart lives. And as the banter that begins jokily with the host’s rather flakey suggestion they might try swapping wives moves inexorably on to reveal the ugliness underneath their perfect lives, the camera homes in to linger pitilessly on faces that begin to drop their friendly smiles as truths emerge. Although the set-up takes a little too long to get going, the downhill slide to a nightmare finale is gripping.
My last morning in Cluj gave me chance to pick up on the film that won the Audience Prize. Gustav Möller’s THE GUILTY (Den skyldige) comes already garlanded with Audience Prizes from Sundance and Amsterdam, and you can see why. Jakob Cedergren is on camera throughout as Asger, a policeman who has for some at first unknown reason been demoted from normal duties for a while to the unloved job of answering emergency calls, and it’s on him that the entire film is centred, stuck on a police station switchboard dealing with an increasingly fraught apparent hostage situation. Like Tom Hardy in Locke, Cedergren’s performance is a masterclass in minimalist expression of emotion, as the camera scarcely moves from his face. As in the classy Danish TV thrillers we’ve all become addicted to in the UK, nothing is a simple as it seems, and the personal life and emotional state of the protagonist seeps subtly in. The sell-out audience in Cluj’s biggest cinema on a late Sunday morning were enthralled and utterly silent throughout.
So another TIFF ends. And I haven’t even mentioned the special Bergman retrospective to mark his centenary, showing seven of his key films, as well as Bergman Island, a documentary made in 2004 at his home where he talks candidly about his life, his work, his regrets, his fears… I also missed my chance to see any of the films of Fanny Ardant, this year’s Lifetime Achievement Winner, looking as youthful and vibrant and unconventional as she ever did. There’s always too much to get round to seeing in Cluj, and one inevitably comes away regretting what has been missed, what didn’t fit in your schedule. But it’s hard to find a dud among the delicious fare on offer, and this year that’s probably been more true than ever. Even the less satisfactory films at Cluj are almost always worth a look, and it’s still great to see a festival that’s as much for the public as for the professionals, many of whom can get to see what they want at another festival if it passes them by at this one. For residents of Romania, non-mainstream and foreign cinema is harder to come by, and the local residents and students pile into the cinemas, even at 10 in the morning, and there are many sell-outs. Then for the guest there are the other distractions- a stroll in the shady park or up to the Botanical Gardens, the market with its aroma of lavender and dill, the architectural delights of Cluj’s varied streets, the sweaty climb up to the Citadel for its views over the mixed roof-scape of the city… And oh the food… a lemonade along the Bulevard, a leisurely Cabbage a la Cluj at the Varzarie, the Goulash party, hastily grabbed street food between screenings, the cherries and the strawberries, the local cheeses and meats (including the one that is practically all fat, reminiscent of north country pork butchers offerings beloved of my grandma from my childhood), the unpretentious ciorbas at the Agape cafeteria surrounded by students and office workers on their lunch break, Doamna T’s restful and civilised retro tearooms. And the people – renewing acquaintances and making new ones at buffet lunches and parties, and falling into conversations with total strangers with no connection to TIFF who give you an insight into life in Romania. Festival’s the word!